Jersey Beat Music Fanzine
 


DEVIATES – Holding Out (www.deviatesband.com)

The Deviates formed in the mid 1990s in Southern California when the members were teenagers still in high school. The sound coming from all of the punk bands from that era and that place became the sound of festivals like the Vans Warped Tour. This sound is echoed in this, the first new album from the band in two decades. The style is still quite popular, related as it is to skate punk. Speedy and slightly metallic, with some big gang vocals and lots of dark melodies, the seven songs offered up won’t disappoint fans of the genre. The songs I like best are the ones that are a little different, though, like “From The Crowd,” which is less speedy and has a brighter, almost poppy melody. While many of the songs have a foreboding sound, this one sounds joyful and ebullient. “Wasted” is quicker and harder, sounding more hardcore with hints of Bad Religion influence and even some early Offspring sounds. And the closer, “On My Own,” has lots of Descendents in it, another fun, bright, and poppy track. These are standout tracks, and though the rest of the tracks tread well-worn paths in the punk world, Deviates have come a long way from their teenage years and do a great job; the songs are tight and energetic. Fans of the genre will eat this up.

DIRTY SHRINES – Digital Ego (Black Numbers, www.theblacknumbers.com)

I had great expectations for Dirty Shrines’ debut LP. After all, it’s a “super group,” featuring Tim Browne and Brian Van Proyen of Elway, Drew Johnson of Chumped, and Max Barcelow of Gregory Alan Isakov. But it’s quite an uneven release, with some excellent tracks and some that leave me cold. That comes from them having a less than cohesive sound in the ten tracks, and normally variety is something I can get behind. But here some of the songs are genres that I just don’t care for, sounding like mainstream pop rock, while others are excellent pop punk and even others are outstanding indie rock or post-emo. Some of the good things I hear are in songs that sound influenced by J Robbins and his bands. For example, the opening track, “Vainglorious Bastards,” after opening with a purposely lo-fi scratchy sound to make it seem like an old record, it moves into a song that’s got a cool bass line and the sort of vocals that I love so much from Robbins, part tentative, part intense and emotive. The song gets bigger and has the sort of sound Robbins did so well in latter Jawbox and Burning Airlines records, but tempered with some glittery Steely Dan pop elements, mainly coming from production and some guitar tones. And “Breakfast” is an interesting blend of that J Robbins DC post-emo sound mixed with whoa-oh style pop punk. It’s a more introspective song, too, quieter and slower. “Iron Blinders” is a great modern pop punk track that has some classic power pop touches. And I adore “The Only You You Know,” for its grand gliding guitar chords that remind me of some of the best post-emo sounds I remember from back in the day. Those are but a few of my favorite tracks on the LP. But not all is well. “Every Mile” is not my thing, sounding like the sort of 80s rock and roll that turned me off, but played by a pop punk band. “Loud Clichés” does sound like a cliché of commercial pop rock, “Aren’t You Ashamed” teeters between post hardcore hard pop rock, and 80s dark pop. “The Lovers In Dystopia” is smooth easy adult contemporary style music, but with earnest pop punk style vocals. This lack of cohesion is likely a side effect of having a super group, with everyone wanting to contribute their two cents. Hopefully Dirty Shrines works out what they want their sound to be like and rally around that, because when it’s good, it’s very good.

THE MOMMYHEADS – Age of Isolation (www.mommyheads.com)

The Mommyheads are an indie pop band that were active from the late 80s through the 90s, and then took a decade off. They reformed in 2008 and have been active since. “Age of Isolation” marks somewhat of a change in direction for the band. They’ve long pushed at the boundaries of what’s considered “indie pop,” but here they’re pushing harder, integrating progressive rock elements, and synths play a prominent role in the instrumentation. I’m not a big prog rock fan. But I do like what The Mommyheads are doing here, with buzzy and bright synths and minimalist repeating lines. The brightness of those synths contrasts starkly with the coldness of the melody in the verses on “Last Silver Dollar,” though the chorus has a warmer sound. Some of the songs have a smooth pop rock sound, too, reminding me a bit of Steely Dan, with a jazzy edge. One such song is “Don’t Ignore The Air.” The long sustained notes in the vocals and the mirroring of that in keyboards, all while hushed speaking occurs in the background and bass synth gives a funky slap, makes for an interesting combination; it’s not the sort of texture one would expect from a storied indie pop band. The title track gets downright spacey, reminiscent of Pink Floyd, but with a heavy dose of a certain era of Queen, the higher register vocals channeling the spirit if Freddy Mercury. “Statues (Paintings, Poems and Books)” uses a rock steady beat and buzzing synths to create a song that’s very much on the prog rock end of the spectrum, yet has the quality of a stage production from a rock opera. “Am I Too Comfortable” has an interesting funkiness to it, sort of like jazz pop crossover music of the 70s. And I think this is one of the best aspects of The Mommyheads. Sure, they wear their influences on their sleeves, but they’re masterful at blending the old and the new. And so their music sounds both familiar and fresh at the same time.

THE SPEED OF SOUND – Museum of Tomorrow (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)

Longstanding UK outfit The Speed of Sound (they’ve been around since the late 80s) are now up to their fifth full-length LP. This time out they’ve got sort of a science fiction theme running through the songs, not only through the topics, but in their sound: it’s as if they’ve ridden in a time machine, with songs having the sound of 70s and 80s Brit-pop. There’s loads of jangle in the guitars and lots of mod and pop influence in the melodies. The vocals, shared by John Armstrong and AnneMarie Crowley, are the one aspect that bothers me. When it’s just Crowley singing, it’s glorious. Her vocals have the quality one would expect to be singing ancient folk melodies, solid and confident. It’s Armstrong’s vocals that are more problematic, though, making me think he’s trying to sound like Fred Schneider of the B-52s. There’s that goofy spoken/sung feel, but it’s somewhat off pitch. Thankfully Crowley takes the vocal lead for most of the album. I like the quirky out of time feel of the songs, starting with the opener, “Tomorrow’s World.” It’s got a slightly psych-folk and deeply retro feel, and the guitars are loaded with jangle. “Zombie Century” sounds appropriately spooky, in a cheesy sort of way, and that makes it a lot of fun. I think I hear a reference to a search for brains in the lyrics; of course, that’s what zombies eat! And the synths give it the sci-fi feel. Other topical songs for our museum of tomorrow include “Virtual Reality (part 2),” a song that reminds me of 60s hits like Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” but mixed with Stiff Records late 70s retro hits by the likes of Tracey Ullman and Kirsty MacColl. And I like the 80s new wave pop mixed with funk of “Leaf Blower,” though I’m not quite sure how the topic fits the science fiction theme. My favorite song may be the penultimate track, “The Day The Earth Caught Fire.” It mixes indie pop and power pop with psych and retro Brit-pop. “Shadow Factory” is one of the songs that have those problematic vocals. It’s an otherwise wonderful tune with glittery synths, but Armstrong’s backing vocals are off-putting. There’s a fun reference to “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the end, where we hear a voice say, “My God, it’s full of stars, it’s full of stars, it’s full of stars.” And Armstrong takes some vocal leads on “Impossible Past” that try to sound Lou Reed-like and it’s a bit grating. Same deal on “Blood Sweat And Tears,” the vocals make the otherwise nice melody hard to take. It’s as if the spirit of Bob Dylan had taken over. To sum up, interesting concept, fun quirky melodies and instrumentals, mostly excellent vocals, but a few tracks with vocals the bug me.

AIR COOL JENNY – First Flight (www.aircooljenny.com)

“First Flight” is the aptly named debut EP from Americana duo Air Cool Jenny. The pair consists of Helen Rose and Kramer Sanguinetti, who met in New York City during an evening of live music, which culminated in a spontaneous punk rendition of the Appalachian folk tune, “Shady Grove.” The two moved back to Sanguinetti’s hometown of New Orleans, then relocated to their present home of Los Angeles, where Rose was raised. The EP was recorded back in Louisiana by Kirkland Middleton, drummer for The Lost Bayou Ramblers. Middleton also plays drums on this EP. The music ranges from acoustic country folk to soulful indie on the opening track, “Pelican.” It begins with just acoustic guitar picking and harmonized vocals with a down home sound. Then the organ comes in, and then guitar and drums, and the song gets soulful and funky. It shows the versatility of Air Cool Jenny, and their ability to span genres. Rose’s vocals are passionate and expressive. “When I Rise” is the most delicate of the songs on this EP, with the feel of a love song crossed with a spiritual, and the hushed sax solo is softly beautiful. “Pissin On The Moon” is the purest country of all the tracks, with loads of twang. It sounds like something that would be right at home on one of those NPR entertainment programs, such as “Live From Here,” with an almost Texas swing sound. The quartet of songs ends with the lovely ballad, “The River’s Gone.” Smooth sounds, including saxophone, feature prominently in this track, which has the feel of a spiritual. Multi-tracking is used to create a gorgeous instrumental break with saxophones gliding effortlessly. This is a nice, relaxing listen, and a nice debut.

THE BOLLWEEVILS – Liniment and Tonic (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)

The Chicagoan in me is giddy over new music from The Bollweevils! And they’ve also got a new full-length LP in the works! I’ve long been a fan of The Bollweevils, since first seeing them as a supporting act back in the late 80s and early 90s, opening for Chicago luminaries such as Naked Raygun. The Bollweevils are a thoroughly Chicago punk band, playing an energetic hardcore injected with a heavy dose of pop melodies. The A-side of this new single, “Liniment and Tonic,” is a prime example, powerful and poppy, with Ken Fitzner producing a muscular Chicago guitar sound and vocalist Dr. Daryl Wilson emphatically belting out the lyrics about the band’s favorite cocktail creation. The other guys on bass and drums do a good job, too (just kidding! Pete Mittler and Pete Mumford make up a strong rhythm section and really propel the song). The B-side is a cover of The Lillingtons’ “Black Hole in My Mind,” and this version has a bit quicker of a tempo, a bit more energy and oomph than the original, but it retains all the darkness that The Lillingtons put into it. Yeah, new music from The Bollweevils is something we can all celebrate, whether we’re Chicago ex-pats or not.

DANIEL ROMANO'S OUTFIT – Cobra Poems (You’ve Changed Records, www.youvechangedrecords.com)

Daniel Romano is a Canadian musician, poet, producer, and visual artist. Romano has changed up his musical style over the years, beginning as primarily a folk and country performer in 2010. A few years back he started branching out into rock music and creative musical arrangements. The songs started becoming mini epics, reminding me of Chicago’s Bobby Conn in that they have a totally unique feel. The pandemic has only accelerated Romano’s creativity, seeing him put out several new releases in rapid succession. This latest LP continues his musical explorations, featuring a variety of sounds. There’s bluesy soulful rock and roll on “Tragic Head,” opening the album with a song big enough to be the live show closer. “Nocturne Child has a similar R&B rock and roll flavor, while “The Motions” has loads of gospel influence. I like the mix of R&B and rock and roll of “Holy Trumpeteer,” especially when the actual trumpets come in at the halfway mark, giving the track a bright and glorious sound. The song ends quietly with acoustic guitar and vocals, an electric organ playing distantly in the background. In “Even In The Loom Of A Caress,” I can still hear a core of folk-like music, but the arrangement and melody go through so many twists and turns, it’s the most unique track of the album, and the most interesting. The closing track is another favorite. “Camera Varda.” It’s an epic yet minimalist track featuring a vocal choir singing, “Love is a bond between time and everyone” for a time, then a trumpet joins in and the chorus and trumpet close the number with a nostalgic and joyful sound. This record may not be for everyone, especially if you’re looking for punk or indie pop. But if you’re looking for something soulful, something original, this is a good place to look.

FACE TO FACE – No Way Out But Through (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)

Some Fat Wreck bands play 90s skate punk, speedy and metallic; “bro” style punk. Some Fat Wreck bands play much more melodic, poppy music, often with a gritty guitar sound. Face To Face are smack dab in the middle of that spectrum. The music is grand and speedy, but chock full of strong melodic and pop content. There are big sing-alongs, there’s grand epic punk, but there are also emotionally charged moments. The title track is a favorite, mixing speedy and melodic elements together, with great street punk gang vocals mixed with big guitar sounds. “A Miss Is as Good as a Mile,” too, mixes tough guitars with a smoother melody and soaring vocals, making for a huge heroic sound that’s super catchy at the same time. That’s the real magic of Face to Face, making tough sounding punk that’s still catchy and will get your head bobbing. “Blanked Out” is less punk and more indie rock, and it’s got loads of jangling guitars. The backing vocals are simple whoa-ohs, but give the song a hint of a mournful feel, even though it’s up-tempo. “Ruination Here We Come” does seem to fit into the more “typical” Fat Wreck sound, harder rock with a darker skate punk feel and lots of whoa-ohs, so it’s probably my least favorite song of the album. But overall this is another strong effort from this Southern California band.

FRIENDS OF CESAR ROMERO – War Party Favors (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)

Cesar Romero was an accomplished actor, singer, and dancer, but he’s probably best known for his role as The Joker in the 1960s high camp TV version of Batman. Friends of Cesar Romero, on the other hand, has nothing to do with Batman; rather, they’re an accomplished garage-punk/power pop band. Or he is. Because Friends of Cesar Romero is basically one person, J. Waylon Miller. He plays all the instruments and does all the singing (well, almost. Ella Sugar contributes some backing vocals on a few tracks). The dozen tracks are bouncy, poppy, and energetic. Some of them lean further toward the garage end of the spectrum, like the title track. It’s got a strong retro garage flavor and a rocking guitar solo. It oozes rock and roll attitude. Some of the tracks are punkier. “Blank Valentine” is a great pop punk track, with its quicker tempo and grittier sound. Some of the tracks are on the power pop end of the spectrum, focusing more on the pop melody. “The Lonely Popular Girl” is one such track, telling the sad story of being alone and unlucky in love. “Beauty and the Broken Heart,” too, is a power pop tune about the downside of love. This one is a little slower, but not quite a ballad. The melody has a nice dose of melancholy, as it lopes along, trying to put on a brave face. Lots of the songs are about love and loss, as most great pop-rock music has been for decades. I like the Beatles-esque “Thinkin’ ‘Bout Leavin’,” for its great guitar tone and retro feel. The lyrics are about sour grapes in a relationship: “If you’re thinking about leaving / I got news for you / If you’re thinking about leaving / I’ve been thinking about it too.” Another one with a bit of a retro pop feel is “Baby How Long,” which is, natch, another anti-love song, questioning how long a relationship will last before the inevitable break-up. Friends of Cesar Romero bring all the best aspects of garage, power pop, and pop punk and roll them up into some great tunes.

LORD BALTIMORE – Angel (www.lordbaltimore.bandcamp.com)

“Angel” is Lord Baltimore’s third EP in as many years. And if you like your pop music chill you’ll love this. The first of the three songs is “Ketamine Tea,” a perfect introduction to the sound. It’s pop music, but so very mellow. Synths are lush and mysterious, while the vocals are chilly and understated. “Something Like Thirst” is the middle track of the trio, and has more of a dance beat, though it’s just as relaxed and laid back. Of this song, Lord Baltimore says, “This song is about my first sexual encounter, which happened to be with someone of the same gender that I was assigned at birth. We were kids. I kept it secret for years, and I only confessed it to a priest. I was terrified that I had sinned against God. That's what I was taught. I reconciled with it after many years. I realized that it was something beautiful. Something innocent, pure and human.” You can feel the joy in the brightness of the melody and the spring in the beat. The final track is “Gulf of Mexico,” and it starts out quietly and grows into quite an epic, as the music swells and ebbs. This is quite a lovely EP.


HEAVY SEAS – Everything Breaks (Sell The Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com)

Chicago’s Heavy Seas has been patiently waiting for this debut LP to release. Mainly recorded in 2019, the band had planned an earlier release, but all plans were put on hold, as were most things, with the onset of the pandemic. The band is made up of veterans Jeff Dean (singer/guitar) of All Eyes West, Airstream Futures, and more, Ronnie DiCola (drums) of All Eyes West and The Arrivals, and Katie Karpowicz (bass) of Airstream Futures. The band’s sound leans heavily into 90s post-hardcore and post-emo, and adds in some shoegaze-like elements, too. The resulting ten songs are expansive, powerful, and emotive. The thick arrangements belie the stripped down nature of the band as a three-piece. Perhaps some of the big sound can be credited to J Robbins, who recorded and co-produced the LP. The band’s sound and Robbins’ aesthetic go well together, yielding some powerful tracks. One of my favorites is “Waves and Dreams,” the second track of the LP. It’s got an intensity and a sense of controlled chaos, rhythms that drive the song ever forward, and vocals that will penetrate your bones. The song starts out with some big power chords and jazzed up drum fills, then the vocals come charging in. It’s nearly four minutes of all-consuming passion that really gets me going. “Oscillations,” too, has an insistent beat that never lets up, with hard edged pounding bass and guitars, but there’s also an ethereal quality to the backing vocals; hard and soft elements meld together nicely. Then there are songs like “Fade Away,” which, while not quite as hard-edged and emphatic, still pack a punch. It has a dreamier sound, with fuzzy production tempering the jangle of the guitars. Fans of late 80s and early 90s music, especially the DC sound from that era, are going to eat this up. I know I already am, and I’m hungry for more.

PEARL & THE OYSTERS – Flowerland (Feeltrip Records, www.feeltrip.co)

Light and airy fluff comes from Pearl & The Oysters, the Franco-American duo of Joachim Polack and Juliette Davis. The pair moved from Paris, first to Florida. Now in Los Angeles, “Flowerland” is their latest musical effort, and you’ll hear a tropical breeze floating through these songs, similar to the music of Antônio Carlos Jobim. You’ll also hear a soft disco beat, like on the opener, “Soft Science,” a song about the pull of the surf, sun, and sand of the beach when one really should be studying. Brazilian disco music? That’s a good way to describe it. The lyrics are generally as feathery as the music, with topics such as a bird drying its wings in the sunset along with the hypnotizing ocean waves, likening one’s lover to the sweetness of candy, and whiling away the day in the sun. In addition to bossa nova and disco sounds we get modern lounge. Remember bands like Tipsy, who led a revival of 50s and 60s lounge music? Pearl & the Oysters try their hand at it with “Radiant Radish,” their interpretation of what was known as space age pop or cocktail music. On the other hand, “Crocodile” is pure indie pop, and includes a cool harpsichord break in the middle. It’s a song about being bored and lonely, probably borne out of pandemic isolation. The title track reminds me of 70s pop bubblegum, but with a lighter touch. It’s got a faintly funky keyboard and bass, which probably gives it the 70s feel. One of the coolest tracks is “Osteroid Asteroid.” The lyrics are simple, just the title repeated over and over, sung through a vocoder. Synths swirl around unevenly, with the notes fluctuating as if drunk, beeps and boops belting out as if from a stretched tape of a 70s science fiction film soundtrack. And “Rocket Show” sounds like it could have come from Sesame Street, with its jaunty melody, performed with harpsichord tuned synths, flute, and what sounds like a theremin. This is music for those hot, lazy summer days.

BICENTENNIAL DRUG LORD – BDL (bicentennialdruglord.bandcamp.com)

With a name like Bicentennial Drug Lord, I expected something punk, or at least hard and heavy. Instead, the Milwaukee trio, who started the band as a side project, play relaxed indie rock and Americana on this new EP, the follow-up, if you will, to their 1997 debut LP, “The First Hit Is Free.” Twenty-four years is a long time between releases, but when members John Daniels, Rock Donner, and Al Wetherhead are busy with other projects like Punchdrunk, Wobble Test, The Blow Pops, Soda, Maki, and many others, it’s understandable. This new EP features six songs that have an easy casual feel, like sitting on the porch on a lazy Sunday. Though there’s a definite alt-country vibe to the arrangements, there’s also a pop sensibility to the songs. Listening to “The Pulse Of My Friends,” with its slow steady beat and guitar riffs, it’s like an old Love and Rockets song, but given a healthy doze of twang. I like “Confessed The Sheets,” too, which has a steady beat lurking in the background and a casual sense of grandeur in the chorus. While all of the other songs have pop leanings, “The Traffic Outside” sheds it all and goes straight for the twang, with steel pedal guitar and all. It’s a gentle country waltz, quite pretty and delicate. Bicentennial Drug Lord may have a weird name for this band, but the music is anything but weird; it’s lovely.

CHET WASTED – Raspberry (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, countyourluckystars.limitedrun.com)

Chet Wasted isn’t a person, per se. Chet Wasted is the solo project of Jacob McCabe, the singer and multi-instrumentalist from Perspective, a lovely hand to hold. The ten songs on “Raspberry,” Chet Wasted’s debut album, have an intimate relaxed sound, as if McCabe is just making music for himself, or maybe a few friends. The songs, though intimate, are sometimes lush, as is the case on the title track, which opens the LP. It goes through various transformations, from simple acoustic guitar and vocals to rich electronic keyboards, from folk-rock to jazz inspired rhythms. After a reasonably bright few minutes, the end of the song gets very quiet and solemn, with piano, cello, and vocals. It’s quite a ride. Unconventional arrangements for pop or rock music are used throughout the album, too. “A Moment Captured in Time and Space” uses acoustic guitar and trumpet, plus ethereal harmonized backing vocals. “Once in a While” is an interesting seesaw between delicate quiet music and dark dissonance. I enjoy how the various songs on this LP are so varied, yet definitely share a sound that makes the recognizable as being from the same artist. “Not Okay” has a sort of 70s pop vibe going on, while “Walking in Circles” has a country folk feel, but they feel cohesive, like they belong together. “Distant Loves” has the sound of an old timey pop song, which is kind of cool. The variety and uniqueness make this a lovely debut.

ED RYAN – Don’t Follow Where They Lead (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

On his fourth LP for Kool Kat Musik, Ed Ryan continues offering up guitar-fueled power pop, loaded with hooks and jangle. The album, though a little uneven, starts off on a strong note with the wonderful “Anytown.” It mixes acoustic and electric guitars and has a fantastic mix of British invasion and American power pop sounds. “Fish In The Sea” is a favorite, with its jumping retro sound. This one could be from a rock and roll Broadway show, as it’s got that sort of personality. And though I’m not a fan of guitar solos, it’s got one that’s short, to the point, and sounds wicked good. “What’s True” is a waltz-time ballad with a hint of twang, acoustic guitars giving it a nice folksy feel. “Maybe I’m Dreaming” is another fun power pop track, and “Hollow Man” is another favorite, starting as a raucous soulful song before settling into a power pop groove. It’s definitely the hardest rocking track of the LP. And the closing track, “So Far Away,” has a jangly mix of electric and acoustic guitars playing an epic waltz. The vocal harmonies on the bridge are gorgeous. I’m less enthused by the title track, loaded with synths and a muted trumpet solo. It comes across as smooth jazzy pop, too smooth, too relaxed. The ballad “Made Me” doesn’t do much for me; it just feels like it drags too much. A few of the songs sound like late 70s AM radio fare, too. Though there are a few here and there that are not my cup of tea, the bulk of this album is fun and energetic.


THE BAMBIES – Summer Soon (spaghettytown.com /wandarecods.de)

The Bambies are a tri-lingual and tri-national band, with members originally hailing from Canada, France, and Costa Rica. They play powerful poppy garage punk with a bright sound, perfectly matching the album’s title. Ramones-core, garage rock, and power pop are all mixed together in the dozen tracks, and they’re all raucous and energetic. The beats are infectious and the band is tight, confirming what I’ve been saying for some time: there are no bad Canadian bands. “Dirty Taint” may be a dirty topic for a song, but it’s a strong way to open the album. The song is poppy and bouncy, and the instrumentals are big and burly. It sure feels like a summer celebration type song, with how bright it is. The title track, though, is grittier, more garage focused, ironically. “Party” is perfectly titled, the soundtrack for any summer get-together. We hear the sound of a beer can being opened, and the refrain “Let’s have a party! Whoa oh oh oh oh!” The carefree joy is palpable. “Teen Engine” celebrates the chaos of youth, and “Running Through the Night” is about the joy of anarchic nighttime fun, with no cares or responsibilities. This should be the soundtrack to everyone’s summer.

CINEMA CINEMA – CCXMDII (Nefarious Industries, www.nefariousindustries.com)

Two years ago I reviewed Cinema Cinema’s LP, “CCXMD,” and told you to expand your horizons and listen to it. Now they are back with the companion piece, “CCXMDII,” the conclusion of those recording sessions. Cinema Cinema is an art-punk band from New York that could be categorized as jazz-punk. This LP is somewhat more subdued than the last one, but it’s no less compelling. Saxophone and clarinet are the lead instruments, with the guitar, bass, and drums mostly relegated to supporting roles. As before, these are all instrumental tracks, and sound like they are improvisational pieces. The opening track, “A Life of Its Own, is a long-form excursion in sound. It’s an eighteen-minute journey through a soundscape, feeling like the soundtrack to a trek through various natural landscapes. I can hear the wind blowing through trees and tall grasses, the murmur of small animals and birds, and the babbling of a brook. At one point I can hear angry larger animals, perhaps in a territorial dispute. “Bratislava,” after a period of quiet slow meandering, suddenly picks up the pace and starts hopping, the bass driving the melody and the wind instruments wailing away. “Cloud 4” is an apt title for the closing track, as the saxophone’s sub tones give it a breathy, airy feel. There are seven tracks in all, and 50 minutes of music. Most of that time, some 30 minutes or so, is just two tracks. But it’s all wonderfully mind-engaging stuff.

THE DIRTIEST – Sovranista (Slovenly Recordings, www.slovenly.com)

What would have happened if The Ramones had formed not in New York City, but in Tuscany, in Italy? You’ll get the answer on this LP, the debut full-length from The Dirtiest. The A-side is sung in Italian and the B-side in English, and that A side is class A Ramones core – and not the 90s basement band variety; The Dirtiest are top-notch musicians, and the production quality is perfect. The result is a set of songs worthy of Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Tommy. The songs are short, powerful blasts that are both fresh and familiar. As the opening track, “Quando C’era Lui,” plays, it’s hard not to start pogoing. I dare you to listen to “Ti Piscio Sul Presepe” without thinking you’re listening to an Italian recording of a Ramones song. Musically, the title track is one of my favorites, with chords and harmonies that are different, more urgent sounding than the others. It’s got a grittier garage punk sound to it, too. “Me Ne Fotto” is some solid garage punk’n’roll and reminds me of Tijuana band DFMK, one of my favorite current bands. The B-side English songs sound like they were recorded in completely a different session, even by a different band. Rather than sounding like a reincarnation of the Ramones, it’s some great garage rock and roll with a fantastic snotty attitude. From the put-down song “You Too Fuck You” to 50s doo-wop garage woozy sounding “Freak Love,” the songs on the B-side are excellent examples of various garage sounds. The guitar tone and tuning on “Sweet Girl” is just right for the garage-surf style of the song, but the real surf-punk star is “Jelly Belly.” The opening guitar riff is fantastic and really sets the mood for the song. And I really like “Keep Moving,” a song that starts out with a definite quick-step forward motion sound, but at the end gets slow and emphatic, the vocals getting crackled and crunchy, the music like a 60s version of grunge. The Dirtiest pretty much have two different mini-LPs here with two distinct sounds, and they’re both excellent and recommended.

LA EXES – Get Some (Black Rainbow Records, www.laexes.com)

Wow, what an absolutely fun record, perfect for summer fun! Right from the get-go, “Skinny Dipping” is a gem of an indie pop tune, with some double-entendre lyrics. It’s all about having a summer party hanging out at the pool and not needing swimsuits. I LOL’ed at the line “starting with the breast stroke / I can teach you how to swim,” and “if you come by we could dive in.” The quartet is made up of Sam Barbera (vocals, bass), Jenny Owen Youngs (vocals, guitar), Rachel White (lead guitar), and Steph Barker (drums), and the songs are full of references to queer seduction, like “Totally Worth It,” a song about a woman who seduces another after her boyfriend leaves a party. “It was totally worth it / Maybe I’m a bad person,” says the chorus. The song has a light and lovely melody reminiscent of 60s Brit-pop, with gorgeous backing vocal harmonies. “West Keys” is a beautiful sad song of hurt and broken hearts, a torch song vibe for the first half, while the second half is a bit more upbeat as the lyrics speak about one party wanting to get back together, while the other replies, “So go fuck yourself.” Pretty forthright. There are songs of the desire for casual sex (“Get Some”), a song that complains, “You don’t love me like cocaine” (“Cocaine Girl”), and other songs about love and heartbreak. Musical styles range from the aforementioned indie and Brit pop to light bossa nova (“I Got Half A Mind”) to the very Beatles-like “Temporary Goodbye.” What a refreshingly ebullient debut LP!

THE WIND-UPS – Try Not To Think (Mount Saint Mountain, www.mtstmtn.com)

As the boredom of COVID isolation wore on, former Terry Malts member Jake Sprecher created The Wind-Ups as a home project of sorts. Loud and lo-fi, the songs are pure punk – but with a heavy dose of melodic power pop. You can hear the Ramones influence in the songs and their simple structure, but you can also hear the influence of bands such as The Paul Collins Beat, adding more interesting melodic textures. And I can hear the influence of early garage punk such as Australia’s The Saints, with more of a garage punk approach. I love the opening track, “Too Many Bibles.” It’s the darkest and hardest of the bunch, with interesting dissonance in the chords. “Lockdown” is rock and roll with a bad attitude, wearing a leather jacket and blowing smoke in your face. As the album continues, the power pop emerges more and more, with “Cat in the Hat Hat” being almost bouncy, loaded with pop goodness, even as the distorted guitars scratch their nails across the blackboard in an attempt to shock your nervous system. “Take All the Credit” is even poppier, with a slightly cleaner sound, too. You can almost hear Paul Collins whispering in Sprecher’s ear on this one, as it has a similar feel to the raucous classic, “Walkin’ Out on Love.” The Ramones influence is clear on “Much To Do,” with its shear simplicity in both melody and lyrics, and it’s one that’s sure to get you pogoing at a live show. “Drinking Bleach” is the hardest, edgiest, most garage rock of the album, and it’s a real standout. This is great stuff! As COVID restrictions lift and bands begin playing shows again, former Terry Malts bandmates and friends Phil Benson ad Nathan Sweatt are set to join Sprecher for planned live performances. Here’s hoping they get all the way down to San Diego.


ALEXALONE – ALEXALONEWORLD (Polyvinyl Records, www.polyvinylrecords.com)

Alexalone is a band out of Austin, Texas, and yes, the front person is named Alex, Peterson in this case. The band has been kicking around for the past five or so years and has released a series of singles, EPs and mini albums. Their latest effort, “ALEXALONEWORLD,” (all caps intended) contains eight tracks of moody indie rock, ranging from slightly poppy to noisy, from bits of sunshine on a cloudy day to gloomy overcast, to full-on raging storms. The opening track, “Electric Sickness,” contrasts a beat with spring in its step with smooth understated vocals and throbbing guitar and bass. I like the contrast, too, of the quiet verses with the pounding intensity of the instrumentals in the chorus, even as the vocals remain hushed. “Where In The World” goes through some cool transformations during its six-minute duration, alternating between a droning waltz-time minimalist jam and quiet and introspective verses. It reminds me somewhat of latter day Swans, albeit less chaotic. “Can’t Sleep” mixes gentle guitar strums with subtle dissonance and makes effective use of a wide dynamic range. The back half of the song gets intense and gritty. I like the ambient qualities of some of the songs, like “Let It Go,” which reminds me of some of the chill-out music I listened to in the 90s, with a subtle but definite beat and glowing instrumentals (though this has vocals, unlike dechill-out music). “Black Rainbow” is an interesting piece of spoken word art accompanied by musical musings, a steady metronomic rhythm running through the piece and marking time. The album closes with an epic instrumental jam, “Eavesdropper.” The bass throbs with a constant rhythm, as the guitars scream, moan, and growl. It’s kind of like Stereolab with less pop content and more grit. Moody music for moody people.

JASON PAUL & THE KNOW IT ALLS – Homemade Volume 1 (Broken Anchor Recordings, brokenanchorrecordings.bandcamp.com)

Jason Paul & The Know It Alls have always been masters of relaxed laid-back DIY music, but with “Homemade Volume 1” they’re taking things a step further. They challenged themselves to write songs in one day and record them the next. It was something that came about by necessity, as front man Jason Paul explains. “As the Coronavirus pandemic began, shutting everything down and shutting us inside, we came up with the idea of making a 'lightning' record. I'd write a song one day then, the next day, I'd teach it to Sean (Cole) and we'd record it that same evening. We did every track like that and it's been a blast!” The thirteen songs here range from raucous punk-influenced tunes to psych-pop to delicate acoustic folk ballads, expressing the stylistic influences of the band members, including Paul, Cole, Katherine Schumacher, and Michael Espinoza. The Know It Alls basic style is best encapsulated in the opening track, “Spitting at Death.” You can hear the punk roots, but the song is so free and easy, the spontaneity of the song is easy to hear. I really like the power pop styling of “Fingers Crossed,” and though I normally detest guitar solos, the short solo here, two thirds of the way through the song, is understated and fits in really well. The rambunctious “Wine Lips” is a fun blend of psych and punk. “Cold Hearts” uses keyboards and acoustic guitar to create a pretty singer-songwriter style ballad, and acoustic guitar features prominently, too, on “Illegal Smile,” a folksy track that reminds me of some of the less serious side of singer-songwriters of the past like Steve Goodman or John Prine. And “Damned if You Do” is another acoustic folk track, this time with Bob Dylan inspired harmonica. The Know It Alls also provide their own spin on a punk rock classic, “Teenage Lobotomy.” The Ramones’ hit is still as fresh as ever, with a deep growl from the bass and guitars and more relaxed vocals. All these songs are enjoyable, and you know what the best part is? There’s already a Volume 2 in the works. That’s something to look forward to in these increasingly dismal times.

PSYCHOTIC YOUTH – New Wonders 1996-2021 (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

Long standing Swedes Psychotic Youth started making music way back in 1985, focused on garage rock and roll sounds. By the 1990s they had switched up their sound and began playing power pop and hard rock. Pulling some of their best songs from albums released over the past twenty-five years, including “Stereoids Revisited,” “The Voice of Summer,” “21,” “Forever and Never,” and “Scandinavian Flavor,” Kool Kat Musik gives us over an hour of hits. “I’m Still Waiting” leads off the collection, and it’s power pop gold, sounding like something straight off an AM radio in 1979, with loads of bouncy poppy melody. I really like “On The Route Again,” another great power pop gem that has a chorus raucous enough to border on the pop punk end of the musical spectrum. These sorts of songs are the best on the album, and when they stick to this sort of thing, they’re at their peak. Like “Number 1 In My Heart,” with some fantastic harmonies supporting a great pop melody and some jangly guitars. Another highlight is “Burning For You,” with a modern twist on the power pop sound. “Voice of Summer” is a favorite; it seems to border on the new wave, power pop, and pop punk genres, with a heavy dose of surf. It’s fast and bright and a lot of fun, perfect for the topic of summer fun, sort of like a punked up Beach Boys. I love good power pop, and there’s plenty here. But hard rock has to be pretty special for me to care about it. The hard rock tunes here are a little too mellow for me to get into them. Such is the case with songs like “Can’t Call On Me,” “Kingdom To Be Found,” and others. “Talk To Loretta” sounds like an attempt at a Rolling Stones style song, and doesn’t really do it for me. “Good Life” seems to be a throwback to the band’s garage days, with a harder garage sound and bluesy chord progression. And “Take Him For A Ride” is an odd entrant, trying to sound like a 50s doo-wop song, but it’s too modern an arrangement to work, so it ends up sounding too much like the theme to “Happy Days.” Overall it’s a mixed bag, but thankfully the glories of power pop are very well represented and make this hour-plus collection worthwhile.

RAGING NATHANS – Bring Me The Head Of Betsy DeVos (radgirlfriendrecords.com / ironfestrecords.storenvy.com)

Hot on the heals of their excellent album, “Waste My Heart,” Ohio’s Raging Nathans are back with two more songs on this new 7” single. With a high quality title and a gorgeous Pride Flag adorning the cover, the Nathans give a big “fuck you” to the cult of Trump. “No Goodbye” fills the A-side with some glorious pop punk, a parting shot to the hate-filled dynasty. The speedy song has a melody that hops around and dueling and intertwining vocals declaring, “You’re gonna get what you asked for / You’re gonna get no goodbye / You’re gonna get everything you deserve / You’ll be gone in the blink of an eye.” The guitars ring out brightly on this upbeat song filled with joy. The B-side contains the darker, harder-edged “Psychophant.” The song decries the self-dealing of political leaders, how they fuck us over and get away with it. “Wake me up from this dream,” begs the song, “Because I don’t believe in anything.” It’s got a less hopeful tone than the “No Goodbye,” by far, and shows a mighty contrast between the two sides. Another excellent release from this band.

SUNGAZE – This Dream (sungaze.bandcamp.com)

The husband and wife team of Ian Hilvert and Ivory Snow are back with Sungaze’s sophomore LP, coming almost exactly two years from their debut, “Light In All Of It.” And once again, they give us some big dreamy pop music, with lush synths and jangling guitars, dripping with reverb. The vocals glide hazily and lazily, drifting amongst the ethereal instrumentals. I really like “Change Will Come, the third song of the LP. It’s going to be the perfect track to give to your friends who only listen to commercial pop, to get them to listen to DIY and indie music. It’s got a huge epic feel, with the synths giving it a slightly psychedelic sci-fi soundtrack texture. If Pink Floyd were still around and making dreamy pop music, this track gives you an idea of what it might sound like. For the most part, though, the music is less grandiose, but still sumptuously gauzy. This would be especially nice to listen to late at night, when you’re in a half waking state. I can imagine the beautiful dreams it might inspire.

SWERVE – Ruin Your Day (swervelosangeles.bandcamp.com)

Hailing from Los Angeles, Swerve are Gregory Mahdesian (vocals/guitar), Ruan Berti (guitar/vocals), Brandon Duncan (bass/vocals), and Mark Gardner (drums). After two self-produced EPs, they spent much of 2018 and 2019 writing this, their debut full-length LP. The song styles range widely over the course of eleven songs, from tight energetic punk-influenced numbers to psychedelic, power pop, and Americana-tinged alternative rock. It makes for an album that, while lacking cohesion, at least keeps you guessing. But it’s also uneven. Some of the tracks are pretty great, while others leave me cold. One of the good tracks is “Little Rich Kids,” an unlikely blending of power pop and grunge, with tough guitars playing a bouncy melody. “Waste My Time” is the best track, in my opinion, with the most punk sound and plenty of 90s noise rock. “End Of The World” has a great power pop melody and noisy guitars. The bouncy beat gets my head bopping and the texture of the instruments feeds my need for rock and roll. Surprisingly, “Maybe I Didn’t Do That,” a quieter alt-country like ballad with plenty of twang and saloon style piano and lyrics about a broken relationship is enjoyable to me. And I love the emotional “My Enemy Is Dead,” with its big dynamic range and anthemic feel. The tracks that didn’t do anything for me? The opener, “Ruin Your Day,” which sounds like a bar band trying to sound tough and punk was a disappointment. Your first track should always be one of your strongest, to draw listeners in. “Disassociate” has the feel of a 1980s pop MTV track, so didn’t interest me. When they’re good, Swerve are very good. I just wish they had more consistency.

THE TRANSONICS – Tides (www.thetransonics.com)

For a six-piece band, The Transonics, a band from Columbia, SC, have a very thin sound, more akin to a trio. The melodies are slightly retro, ranging from 50s doo-wop to 80s new wave, with 60s pop handclaps and powerful 80s-like female lead vocals. Those vocals are the best part of this EP, which otherwise feels weak, with those skimpy instrumentals. The lack of sound in those arrangements also lays bare some intonation problems in the guitar solos, especially in the first two tracks, the title track and “When You Were Mine.” When the entire arrangement consists of simple percussion, single note bass line, and single note guitar line, it better be spot-on perfect, because otherwise it ends up sounding really strained, as it does here. Likewise, even though the vocals, individually, are strong, the odd harmonies on “When You Were Mine” are off-putting. The tempos of the songs feel a little draggy, too; they would sound better with a bit of a quickened pace. The songs might also benefit from some professional production. The use of too much reverb in the vocals sounds gratingly out of place in the more raucous tunes.

TYPHOID ROSIE – Queen Of Swords (typhoidrosie.bandcamp.com)

Whoa, this is bright, poppy, and punky stuff! Apparently this is the Brooklyn band’s fourth full-length LP, and man, this is a fun record to listen to. Right from the opening, on the title track, we’re greeted with huge noisy guitars, gigantic gang vocals, and a catchy sparkly melody. This is the way to open an album, though it’s ironic that the lyrics shout “good-bye” and “so long” in the first song. Those big gang vocals appear throughout the album, and are courtesy of guests including Coolie Ranx of Pilfers, Jenny Whiskey and Rob George of Hub City Stompers, Becky Lynn Blanca of Penny Matches, and Jay Prozac of The Prozacs. They really add to the sound, which is sort of like a big party. “1:11” is misnamed because it’s 2:03 long (ha!), but it has the feel of a slower PUP song, especially in the big guitar chords. And “Defend Your Temple” exhibits some PUP influence, too. I really like “When We Were Young,” the chorus with the gang vocals making the song sound almost childlike, and the verses sounding more wistful, like someone reminiscing about a lost childhood. “This One’s For You” is some great poppy punk, too, and I love the bright guitar work, the cool chord changes (with gang vocals! That must have been tough to record!), and jazzy rhythms. “On My Way” closes the LP, and it’s almost skate punk like, with a speedy pace and loads of melody, but without the metallic edge and technical guitar nonsense that bother me about the genre. This is a hella fun album!

WEDNESDAY – Twin Plagues (Orindal Records, orindal.limitedrun.com)

Wednesday is a band of contradictions. Many of the instrumentals are dark, noisy, and grungy, while the songs have melodic content that sometimes verges on poppy, and front person Karly Hartzman’s vocals are very much 2000s alternative music. The music is, for the most part, introspective; even amongst the noise and grunge, there’s a dreamy quality. The title track that opens the LP is a favorite, beginning with pure guitar noise and feedback before the melody begins, big dark guitar chords and notes intoning. It has a dirge-like pace, and when Hartzman’s vocals come in everything gets quiet, guitar tone cleaning up momentarily. The dynamic range is awesome, the song ebbing and flowing wonderfully over its four and a half minutes. Another favorite is “Toothache,” the most upbeat song of the album, the poppy melody clashing with the buzzing noise of the guitars, and what sounds like a flute or recorder in the arrangement. The jazzy instrumental break halfway through the song is pretty, the instrumental solo contrasting sharply with the fuzzed guitars. “One More Last One” continues the contrasts, with smooth, relaxed, harmonized vocals mixed with shoegaze-like noisy guitars, a hazy film over the whole thing. It’s kind of gorgeous. A couple of the songs break the pattern. “The Burned Down Dairy Queen” is mostly more subdued, with hints of 70s pop and Americana mixed in, though it, too, has bursts of noise. “How Can You Live If You Don't Love How Can You If You Do” is pure Americana, with slide guitar and all, clean guitar tone and brushed drums. And “Gary’s,” the penultimate track, uses the slide guitar again to inject some country twang into the indie rock tune. The album closer, “Ghost of a Dog,” is recorded through some sort of filtering, giving the song the sound an otherworldly feel, like it’s coming from a parallel world. The odd lyrics questioning how one can be hearing the dog barking and scratching at the window when “we ran over him years ago.” It’s haunting, and my interpretation is that it’s about how things we thought were over and done in the past can come back to haunt us. Overall, I like this record. I like the dynamic range, the songwriting, and the arrangements. I’m not quite as sold on the vocal style, which is something every female vocalist was trying to sound like twenty years ago.

SPELLS / HOOPER – Rock N Roll Swap Meet: Day 1 (snappylittlenumbers.com)

Snappy Little Numbers presents us with a new split EP, with two songs each from Spells and Hooper. It’s the first in a new series of splits from Snappy Little Numbers that they’re calling “Rock N Roll Swap Meet. Spells, from Denver, give us “The Shallows” and “Corporate Welfare Queen.” Dark pop punk songs with a strong surf guitar sound. Hooper’s tracks are “Forget About Virginia” and “Salted Breeze,” the former being quality upbeat pop punk with a lo-fi Fest-like sound. And the latter is a slower tune, with more of an indie rock feel, huge and epic. Here’s the fun catch of this new split series. Each band covers one of the other’s songs, but wait! There’s more! The second song is written by each band specifically for the other to play on this record! It’s a cool hook, and if the rest of the entrants are as fun as this one, it’ll be a good one to keep up with.


THE ANIMAL STEEL – A Surefire Way To Get Sober (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)

The Animal Steel are described as “four dads from Denver, Colorado that have been playing music since the 90’s, doing what they love to do.” I describe their music as heart-on-their-sleeves post-emo punk. The music is big and broad, with passionate vocals, the kind of music you’re likely to hear from a lot of beer soaked west coast or Fest bands of a particular ilk. You know the ones. The album is the band’s debut, recorded over a year ago and put on hold due to the global pandemic. As the country and the world began to reopen, the band decided the time was right to release this and have a proper record release show – but as I listened to these songs, I read on Facebook that the show has been cancelled due to some recent positive COVID tests among some of the bands scheduled to play. Expect that to happen more frequently in the coming weeks and months. But back to the record. The music isn’t quite post hardcore, as it’s not hard enough to be called that, but that gives you an idea of the intensity of the songs. It’s not what I would call emo, but the songs are certainly sung with fervor. It’s the kind of music that gets a bunch of bearded punks clutching cans of PBR in one hand, the other around the shoulders of their best friend, singing loudly at the front during a live show. Vocals are gritty while the instrumentals, while not smooth, glide along in comparison. There are a few places with mathish influence, like “Redemption Cadence,” with its changing rhythms. The melodies are nice, but I wish there was more dynamic range and variety, as many of the songs tend to sound somewhat alike. It’s good stuff, but I would rather hear the songs on “shuffle” mode mixed in with some other stuff.

BUCKLEY’S ANGEL – Pinnacle Room (Paper Street Cuts, www.paperstreetcuts.com)

Hopefully you’ve already seen Jersey Beat’s premiere of the lead single, “Exit Culture,” from Buckley’s Angel. If so, you’ll know that Buckley’s Angel is the alter ego of Michael Kelly, guitarist from Matt Caskitt and the Breaks and Ash Williams. He started using the moniker Buckley’s Angel in 2015 for his solo acoustic folk-pop-punk songs, and yes, the name comes from the TV show, “King of the Hill.” Kelly eventually recruited friends to fill out a band and play some raucous pop punk. But, perhaps after his move from San Diego to LA, Kelly has evolved the Buckley’s Angel aesthetic. Gone is the pop punk, gone is the manic shouting. It all gives way to beautiful dreamy pop music, with throbbing bass, ethereal vocals, and jangling guitars. That lead single is actually the closing track of the five-song EP. According to Kelly, the song confronts and tries to make sense of the weaknesses the United States has, as well as the lasting and awakening effects this global pandemic brought to light to each individual that lived through it.  Kelly explains, "I started writing this song as everything was really ramping up last summer and the stress fractures of the country really started to bulge. I tried to put to words the mixture of feelings I had about what I was witnessing all around me - from the pure financial panic of millions to a formless dread and anxiety we all feel at least once or twice a day. I wrote this song to try to put some sort of rationality and finality to what I feel is the logical endpoint of current economic/societal arrangements." I love the meandering guitar of the title track, which opens the EP, and the quality of the vocals, with elongated intonation. The songs on this EP are lush and chill, loaded with lonely reverb that gives the songs a huge sound, and the hushed quality of the vocals is lovely, and a far cry from Buckley’s Angel of the past. I love this new direction that Kelly has charted for the band, and I can’t wait for more.

PUNK ROCK FACTORY – Masters of the Uniwurst (www.punkrockfactory.com)

Novelty album or genius? Punk Rock Factory, South Wales’ metal-punk masters, grew up glued to the boob tube, so came up with the idea to record punk rock and metal versions of TV theme songs. And so here we are. The album includes twenty-two songs, heavy on kids’ TV shows, including animated classics like Thundercats, Power Rangers, Arthur, The Flintstones, Darkwing Duck, and more. Some of them are unfamiliar to me, perhaps because I’m too old or they were exclusive to the UK. I had no idea that they had made a cartoon out of the “Gummi Bears” candy, but it’s here, and it’s one of the better songs of the album, focusing more on punk than on metallic flourishes. “MASK” is also one I had not heard of, and it, too, is extremely well done. It would be a cool punk tune even had I not been told it was a TV show theme. But perhaps the best one I had never heard of is “Round The Twist,” a strong powerful song that’s got a great melody and bounce. The theme from “Chipmunks” is from the 1980s cartoon, not from the original 1960s “The Alvin Show,” but the more recent show theme is much more fit for adaptation to a punk song anyway, and just like the theme, this rendition is bright and cheery. The best part comes at the end when they stop the song and declare, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Everybody stop now! Let’s do this properly!” and finish the song in squeaky high voices! That was a surprise and a good laugh. Other familiar themes that get the Punk Rock Factory treatment include “Scooby Doo,” “Powerpuff Girls” and more. I was wary when I first started playing this, thinking it could end up being awful. Sure, it’s a novelty album, but it’s also genius, and a lot of fun.

THE REAL MINX – Complete Recordings (Sympathy For The Record Industry, www.sympathyrecords.com)

In 1994, The Real Minx was born in the “plastic and alienating” climate of Orange County, California, a bastion of conservatism. The four women who made up the band met at a Costa Mesa coffee shop where they all worked, and bonded over their love of The Bangles, The Pandoras, The Muffs, and Motorhead. In 1996 the quartet of Camille Rose Garcia, Paula Boldyn, Allie Gottlieb, and Lynn Hobensack went into a studio called The Distillery, and committed five songs to two inch Ampex tape, two of which made it onto a seven inch slab of vinyl that the band self-released with the title, “Imperial.” Sympathy For The Record Industry, one of the labels that defined the world of gritty rock music in the late 1980s and 1990s, is now releasing all five of the songs as a double 7” set. The songs are a perfect match for the label, raw punk influenced rock, lo fi and dripping with attitude. The best song is the opening track, “Heather Hotwheelz,” which is one of the songs that was on the 1996 single. The dueling vocals, SoCal parody lyrics, and blues-garage-rock music make for a fun listen. You can smell the leather jackets and feel the roar of the motorcycles in this one; it’s greasy good fun. The flipside of that single was “Gasoline,” and its use of an organ makes it stand out from the others, as do the less straightforward chord progressions. In comparison to the other songs, this one shows a much more sophisticated sense of arrangement, and that makes it one of the better tracks. Of the other songs “Search and Destroy,” “Tastes Like Chicken,” and “In and Out,” I can see why the other two songs were selected for the single, but they’re decent enough. “Search and Destroy” crosses rough garage punk and surf punk, and “Tastes Like Chicken” reminds me of The B-52s without any of the major label production value. “In and Out” is the only track I couldn’t get into. It’s a bluesy garage rock number that’s too long, too slow, and too sloppy. But the other songs are real winners from a long lost and underappreciated band.

THE SAILS – Brighter Futures (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

The Sails is the brainchild of Michael Gagliano, and “Brighter Futures” is The Sails’ sixth full-length LP. The UK based Gagliano’s music leans toward retro Brit-pop and power pop sounds, but while rooted deeply in the music of the 60s and 70s, retro is not a word I would use to describe the songwriting on this LP; there’s a modern vibe mixed into some of the melodies, as well as the sense of stage showmanship. Take the opening track, “Crying Out Loud,” for example. I could easily see this being a number in a Broadway musical that takes place in the go-go 60s of London. That’s unsurprising, really, when you learn that Gagliano isn’t just a musician, he’s also portraying John Lennon in London’s West End production of “Let It Be (London),” a show about the Beatles. I really like “Super High Powered Love,” a bright and bouncy tune, made even brighter by the use of glockenspiel on the chorus. It gives it a lovely light feel. “Fly So High” is a bit slower in its pace, and is a perfect example of the mix of retro and modern. It’s a real head bobber, and another favorite. “Rules” has the feel of one of those 50s tragedy ballads, but it’s not quite a ballad and it doesn’t have a 50s melody. Go figure. But it’s a good listen. “Stranger Things” is an acoustic number reminiscent of a Glen Campbell tune. Some constructive criticism is in order, too. Though I enjoy the songwriting, the recording quality sounds like this was recorded in a loo, or at least a room with awful acoustics. It gives the songs a bit of a murky sound. And I would have preferred the performances be a little less smooth and even. Some of these songs would really benefit from a higher level of energy and a bit of raucous edge.

SLEEPERSOUND – Idle Voices (sleepersound.bandcamp.com)

The best way to describe Sleepersound, on this, their second full-length album, is ambient pop. It’s not quite what you think of when you think of ambient music, because these tracks have song structures, melodies, and rhythm, not just swirling music. But they’re also not traditional pop music, in that these songs are a lot more atmospheric than a typical pop band would play. Unlike most ambient music, too, more traditional guitar, bass, and drums are used in conjunction with keyboards and reverb, with lush, rich arrangements. You get an idea what you’re in for when the first track, “Silence Otherwise,” begins. You hear a tremolo-laden organ sound swell, delicately fluttering guitar, and opulent vocals ring out. I enjoy the use of what seems to be processed frog sounds in “Innamorata;” you get a sense of being out in a misty forest, a large pond nearby, not just from those effects, but from the haziness of the music. When the vocals come in, there’s a sweetness to them, but also a sense of mystery. The waltz time title track begins with the feeling of an ancient folk tune, buzzy synths rising and falling. When the clearer keyboard tones take over, the melody takes on an almost classical piano sound. The track is the shortest of the album, at just over two minutes, and it’s an all instrumental, very moody and lovely. It’s quite a contrast, then, when “When the Lightning Comes” begins, as it’s the quickest and most raucous track of the album, the guitars definitely at the fore. “Blossom” uses string synths to create a verdant soundscape, and the sounds in “The Nightingale” sound like a song of the deep mysterious sea, chimes ringing out and the sun’s rays filtering down, shimmering in the water. Vocals are whispered and sporadic. It’s the most ambient of all the tracks. Sleepersound is quietly beautiful.

THE UMBRELLAS (Slumberland Records, www.slumberlandrecords.com)

Decades have gone by since I was voraciously buying up every new release I could find on Michael Schulman’s record label, founded to document the best in indie pop sounds, particularly from bands in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Since then, Schulman has expanded the label’s reach, even moving himself across the country to California, but he’s still working hard to bring us the best indie pop has to offer. The latest release is from Bay Area pop band The Umbrellas. The band is fairly new, only having one previous EP under their belts, and this debut full-length LP is sure to cement their place in the indie-pop pantheon. This is classic stuff, jangly and bouncy. The dueling male and female vocals, the warmth of keyboards, and the tinkling and clamorous guitars all team up to create gorgeous head-bobbing pop. I enjoy the almost minimalist repetition of lines in the opening track, “Lonely,” with hints of Stereolab influence. “Near You” has retro rhythms and ethereal harmonized lead vocals. “Happy” sounds just like its name implies, with an upbeat tempo and bubbly melody, guitars singing along with the vocals. But the lyrics are anything but, speaking to how a complicated relationship has caused life to go from happy to sad. I like the simplicity of “It’s True,” with just acoustic guitar and dueling vocals in lovely harmony. “Galine” is a favorite, too, with effervescent melody and animated vocals. The dozen songs on this LP are relaxed and laid-back, and so enchanting and delightful.


HIPBONE SLIM AND THE KNEETREMBLERS - Tremblin' (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)

Collecting 40 tracks from the last three albums, a scattering of EPs, and a handful of compilation tracks, Dirty Water Records presents an astounding collection of retro rock’n’roll tracks from Hipbone Slim and the Kneetremblers. Songs range from rockabilly to garage, from surf to R&B, and everything in between. Listening to these tracks is like falling through a time warp to the past to when rock and roll was just emerging as a new genre. Jazz and blues had given way to rhythm and blues, and when played harder and faster, mixed in with a bit of what had been called “Hillbilly music,” it became rock and roll. If you listen to the opening track, “Ain’t Got A Leg To Stand On,” you can hear all these sounds merged, the surf guitar, the early rock and roll melodies, with hints of country twang. I’m a fan of old time R&B, and have a collection of classics from Okeh Records that were released between 1949 and 1957, and I can tell you that “Bad Dumplings,” the second track here, can stand with the best of them. A bluesy melody plays, a choir of backing vocals sings in doo-wop style, and the lead vocals tell a story. The song is focused on R&B instrumentation of piano, bass, guitar, and drums, and there’s a great tenor sax solo. I like the hard driving “Genie In The Lamp,” with its raw, primal, minimalist rock and roll. Hipbone’s lead vocals howl with passion, while the Kneetremblers worm their way into your soul. The guitar solo mixes eastern mysticism with western surf, and is quite unique. “The Eyes Have It” is another favorite, a little different from the others with its classic rhythm but more modern sounding harmonies. The lead vocals on “Bottomless Pit” and “Hey Henrietta” are deliciously gritty and lo-fi, the instrumentals on the latter being a minimalist blues riff we’ve all heard, and it’s so good. “Square One” is chaotic and raucous, like early primitive punk mixed with rhythm and blues, and will get you jumping around. “Hairy Lula” is hilarious and fun, as is “Chicken Skin,” which sounds like all those early rock and roll novelty songs, with exaggerated vocals and silly lyrics. “Throw A Stone, Hide Your Hand” is a fantastic track, with the feel of a big band playing R&B, sounding like it has a full sax section. If you like the classic “Tequila,” you’ll enjoy the similar “Holy Guacamole,” also a Latin-inspired instrumental that would get Pee Wee Herman up on the bar top. And “Jibber Jabber” has an excellent Cajun rock and roll sound. I could go on an on, because there are forty tracks and an hour and three quarters of hot music! Put on your best jeans, a clean white t-shirt, and your black leather motorcycle jacket, slick back your hair, and enjoy!

THE NAUTICAL THEME – Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed (www.thenauticaltheme.com)

The Nautical Theme are a duo from Dayton, Ohio making pretty indie-folk-pop music consisting of piano, acoustic guitar, and pretty harmonized vocals. On this outing, the pair present three songs that are lovely and emotional. The female/male vocal harmonies are lush, even as the instrumentals are subtle. The middle song of the three, “Somewhere Just Okay (But Not Alright),” is something many of us can relate to these days, about seeing injustice around us but only seeing it through our screens, not doing anything to help fix it. “I spent too much time just staring at a screen / Thinking there’d be something there to rescue me / When all I saw was emptiness and hate and apathy / I tried to look away but couldn’t leave,” they sing in the first verse, addressing the ills of social media that have been laid particularly bare this past year. And the second verse is more direct: “I spent too much time just thinking about myself / My status, my perception, and my wealth / When just beyond my walls you’re crying out / Please brother can you spare a little help.” This is pretty yet heavy stuff.

PAGEANTS – Sun and Settled Days (pageantsmusic.bandcamp.com)

The Long Beach, CA duo of Rebecca Coleman and Devin O’Brien serve up an album’s worth of light and airy indie pop. The melodies are sweet, while the arrangements inject some dreamy shoegaze elements. This is their sophomore effort, coming some three years after “Forever,” their debut LP. And if you’re a fan of indie pop of a couple decades ago, you’ll probably enjoy this. The music is uniformly smooth, bright, and easy. Some interesting touches are the synths that approximate a harpsichord sound buzzing in the background of “All Best Aside” and an ethereal sound laden with reverb in “Stars,” with wobbly shimmery synths. Pageants don’t create anything surprising or different here – it’s fairly standard stuff, the kind of music that would have been called “twee” back in the day. And I liked twee pop back then. I like this, but it’s diaphanous stuff, nothing earthshaking, and maybe even becoming a bit retro.

VISTA BLUE – Back to the Summer Olympics (wearevistablue.bandcamp.com)

Mike and Mark are back with some more topical pop punk! The Vistas are known for their buzzy Ramones core music and Beach Boys poppy melodies and harmonies, and they’re equally known for creating songs around various seasonal themes. This time they tackle summer and summer sports, with the title track being particularly timely. The song is an homage to the hard work and dedication it takes to return to the titular event, especially with all the naysayers who claim that at four years older there’s no way you can earn a medal. The song is a little slower and bouncier than typical Vista fare, and the vocal interplay and organ solo are quite nice. “Hey Anthony” and “It’s Summertime Again” both have more typical sounds for the band, with a more upbeat tempo and thicker Ramones core guitars, but the vocal harmonies are up a notch from past efforts. They’re both also about the glories of the summer, especially when you’re a kid. Freedom and lolling at the beach are what summer is about. The prolific Vista Blue may worry about not winning a medal, but this is pop punk gold.


DESCENDENTS – 9th & Walnut (Epitaph Records, www.epitaph.com)

Descendents was founded by Frank Navetta and David Nolte in 1977, but unable to attract more members to fill out the band, Nolte quit to join The Last. Navetta recruited drummer Bill Stevenson and bassist Tony Lombardo, and the trio recorded their first single, with Lombardo and Navetta each singing one song. Later, Milo Aukerman joined on vocals, and the rest is history, as the band became major players in the burgeoning Los Angeles punk rock scene. This classic lineup went on to record and release the “Fat” EP and the album, “Milo Goes To College.” Afterwards, Navetta quit the band to move to the Pacific Northwest, and the band’s lineup changed a couple of times before settling on the long-lived lineup of Aukerman and Stevenson, along with Karl Alvarez and Stephen Egerton. But during the early period before Milo joined the band, they had written a bunch of songs, songs that were never recorded. Stevenson decided to do something about this, and in 2002 he reunited with Lombardo and Navetta to commit these songs to tape. Sadly, Navetta passed away in 2008, and the recordings sat idle for years. Then, in the midst of the pandemic, Milo got the chance to record vocals for these songs he never even knew existed. In addition, the two songs from the band’s first single were rerecorded, now with Milo singing. So what we now have is, essentially, a lost first album from the original full Descendents lineup, since these songs were all written before “Milo Goes to College.” Like many of those early songs, these are short blasts, recognizably punk rock, but loaded with pop melodies, something that became a trademark for the band and that made them so influential. Of the eighteen songs, only two exceed two minutes, while five are under a minute. One of those is “You Make Me Sick,” a song that will song so familiar, yet so new. The songs may be older, but they’re being played by musicians with decades of experience, recorded on a higher budget with more professional engineering, mixing, and mastering. It makes these songs sound more powerful and current than they would, had they been recorded when they were written. Descendents were famous for song titles ending in “age,” and we have one of those here. “Nightage” is classic Descendents, with the sort of bass and guitar lines that would fit right in with a later era song, but with a darker melody that’s somewhat rare for the band. At 2:23, it’s the longest track, but it’s also one of the best (but then, one of my all-time favorite Descendents songs is the lonely sounding “Ace” off 1985’s “I Don’t Want to Grow Up,” so it makes sense). I like “Tired of Being Tired,” with its rolling bass line and its mix of classic Descendents poppy punk and darker progressive rock harmonies. And the two rerecorded songs? It’s amazing with a couple decades of playing will do, and a bigger budget for recording. “It’s a Hectic World” and “Ride The Wild” benefit immensely from both, and Milo’s vocals are a big improvement, too. The songs sound fresh and new, like they could have been written over the past year. Rather than sounding thin and primitive, they sound thick and vibrant. Milo’s vocals bring a higher level of excitement and intensity. The closing track is very different from the rest of the album. The album ends with a punky cover of the Dave Clark 5's “Glad All Over,” bubbly 60s retro power pop with a punk-like edge to it. So to sum up: classic early Descendents songs, modern professional recording, and seasoned musicians? This will go down as one of the top Descendents LPs.

OLD MOON – Altars (A La Carte Records, alacarterecords.bandcamp.com)

Old Moon, the recording moniker of New Hampshire’s Tom Weir, sees its debut full-length LP in “Old Moon.” The eight-song album features the sort of romanticized post-punk/new wave/goth mélange that was popularized in the 1980s by bands like The Cure or even Bauhaus and that ilk. The songs have a pall of darkness over them, heavily filled with reverb, and the clanging and jangling of guitars. The balance between guitar-based post punk and the eerie goth elements is well done, better than many. But what the songs provide in terms of a sense of urgency or excitement is cancelled out, to an extent, by the incredibly muddy mix. I’m sure it was done on purpose to achieve an effect, but the noisiness and distortion in the recording overshadows the songs, which sound like they were recorded in a large room with no sort of acoustic controls, the sounds bouncing around off bare metal walls. It’s a shame because the songs aren’t bad; it’s just hard to hear them. The sound quality aside, “Chains of Sleep” is a favorite of the LP; its style, while consistent with the rest of the LP, is less dark, and somewhat poppier. There’s a brightness to it, amidst the goth darkness, that’s appealing. “Taste,” too, is a great upbeat pop song. The chug-a-chug of the guitar and the strong backbeat from the drums would be at home in a band that focused more on indie pop and indie rock. It’s unfortunate that the mix is so murky and sodden, because the goodness of the song is masked. And that’s the big problem here. I bet these songs are better than many of them seem. I just can’t hear it through the muck.


BELLHEAD – Dead Lights (bellhead.bandcamp.com)

Mixing one part EDM, one part post punk, and two parts industrial, Bellhead produce music that sounds both retro and contemporary at the same time, no mean feat. Bellhead is the Chicago duo of Ivan Russia (high bass/lead vocals) and Karen Righeimer (low bass/vocals). The band is filled out with a drum machine and various synths, and the resulting sound is something that would be at home on the legendary Wax Trax record label, though the arrangements are a little less full than industrial bands of yore. This latest release is a five-song EP, starting with the darkly urgent “Mercy.” The bass pounds out a gritty rhythm while the drum machine provides punctuation, the synths paint an eerie backdrop, and the vocals are whispered and shouted. The result is an unsettling sound (in the best way). “Nothing As It Seems” is next, with the contrast of mysterious melody and gritty instrumentation with a bouncier rhythm. I’m less enthused about “The River,” a ballad-like track that seems to drag; the high bass line seems to plod, the single-note guitar line feels hollow, and the vocals seem forced. The track just doesn’t live up to the quality of the others, sounding like a less professional band recorded it. “Frankenstein,” on the other hand, is one the best tracks of the LP. It’s got a quicker tempo, horror-film soundtrack keyboards, and breathy spoken and sung vocals. The closing track, “Dead Letter,” is a little different from the others. It’s got a slower tempo, but doesn’t drag, the bass adds plenty of noise, but piano and pretty backing vocals add a stark contrast. When the bass drops out, we get world-weary vocals and delicate piano chords. Then the synths and guitar come in, providing a tribal sound. This is much more effective ballad than “The River,” and it’s got a cinematic quality to it. Four out of five stars for four out of five tracks.

CLOUDLAND – Where We Meet (www.cloudlandband.com)

As others have done before them, Cloudland has taken their name from the very beautiful Cloudland Canyon State Park, in Georgia. While I’ve never been to this spot known for its many waterfalls and gorges and its breathtaking scenery, I can imagine it by listening to the ten songs on this, the band’s debut LP. The songs are the epitome of modern indie rock, with a healthy dose of pop mixed in. The LP opens with “Sunday Afternoon,” a song that embodies the hazy lazy feel of the titular time. Opening with a simple acoustic guitar and vocal, eventually keyboards join in, then electric guitar, and finally understated drums. The song is so dreamy and laid back, as it should be with a name like that. “Overthinking” gets harder and crunchier electric guitars, but the melody and rhythm are jazzy and poppy, making it an instant favorite. I like how acoustic guitar flutters in the background, vying with the keyboards. The title track is slow to get started, with just vocals and minimalist electric guitar, but as the song evolves the arrangement thickens, and a deliberate beat takes over. At the halfway mark the song gets huge and the chord changes and keyboards are lush. That’s how this album is, edgy instrumentation with softness around the edges, plenty of pop goodness, and a vast dynamic range. The interesting outlier of the album is the short instrumental, “Sunday Evening,” a companion piece to “Sunday Afternoon,” if you will. While the earlier song is lazy and relaxed, this one is pensive, quiet, and a bit experimental, as if thinking about all that has happened, and all that will happen. It’s gorgeous. As is the whole LP. This is what a debut should be like.

RICKY ROCHELLE – Look at the Sun (Laptop Punk Records, laptoppunkrecords.com)

Grim Deeds’ DIY label has been very busy lately, cranking out a ton of releases from lots of pop punk bands. This latest, from Ricky Rochelle (of The Young Rochelles), is somewhat of a departure. It’s more noise punk than pop, with throbbing bass and grinding guitar, courtesy of band mate Ray Jay Rochelle, and a pounding tribal beat from Ricky’s drums. Vocals are strained and throaty, and the whole thing is over way too quickly, in forty-seven seconds. Apparently it’s just a teaser, the first single for Rochelle’s new LP that should be available today. If the rest of the songs are as compelling as this taste, I know I’ll be checking it out.

STEEL BRIDGES – Under The Rug (steelbridges.bandcamp.com)

Steel Bridges is a metallic skate punk project out of Canada – and it’s all done by one person, Philippe Routhier. Think bands like Millencolin, Strung Out, and Pennywise and you get the idea. Steel Bridges, though, trades some of the speed of most skate punk for more melodic content. For example, the opening track of the eight-song mini-LP has some of the pop flavor of Descendents, as well as plenty of the metal-tinged punk of the aforementioned bands. That this is all a one-man operation is pretty impressive. Routhier wrote all of the songs, played all of the instruments, and did his own recording and production in his home studio. The result sounds professionally done and the instrumentals are tight. Of course, skate punk is a well-worn genre, and Steel Bridges isn’t going to break new ground here. But if you’re a fan of the genre you can’t go wrong here.

D.A. STERN – People Named Ben (dasternmusic.bandcamp.com)

D.A. Stern, the LA-based New Jersey born musician, offers up his latest songwriting effort, a four-song EP of breezy poppy songs. The title track is a lovely bossa nova track, with saxophone, flute, piano, marimba, and reverb-laden backing vocals. The result is a very tropical sounding pop song, with an almost magical air about it. “Jacket On My Birthday” continues the island vibe, this time with a song about a chivalrous gentleman who yields his jacket on his own birthday to keep his love warm. I can imagine saxophonist Stan Getz playing something like this (if he was still alive), with its bright jazzy feel. The instrumental track, “Campfire,” changes things up with a lounge-doo-wop vibe. And the EP closes with “I Look At Every Face (Cindy),” a song that takes some influence from Beach Boys songs and 70s AM radio. Taken as a whole, Stern isn’t shaking up the music biz, but he’s sure adding some nice light entertainment to it.



ERIK NERVOUS – Bugs (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)

Last year Erik Nervous released Bugs as a limited availability cassette, but now Drunken Sailor Records is giving it a proper vinyl issue, and thank goodness. Erik Nervous plays some fantastic old school punk and hardcore, top notch songs that blur the border between punk rock, new wave, and hardcore. The music is tight and bright, fast and furious. The title track appears twice, sort of, bookending the other eleven, with a weird a cappella song about, well, bugs. Decaying bugs. The delivery makes it sound like some sort of inside joke that we aren’t meant to get. The first proper song, “Our Hungry Fruit,” is a 52 second blast of intense hardcore, the likes of which you haven’t heard since the early 80s (if you were old enough to be listening to it back then). Hell yes! “Over There” comes next, and it’s speedy too, but has a lighter new wave pop touch, though the guitars try to toughen and punk things up. The synth heavy “Living In The Woods” brings mid period Devo to mind, with smooth buzzy synths and monotone vocals. I love the sound of “Instant This Instant That,” a bright sparkly song with both a garage punk and new wave feel, plus some copy machine sound effects. “Wrong Weird” is aptly titled, as it’s the weirdest song of the album (excluding the bookending title tracks). It’s a lot quieter, primarily consisting of rapid rhythms, strange synth bleats and boops, and lo-fi vocals low down in the mix singing-saying, “Gabba gabba hey hey / Go away” over and over. It’s also the longest track, at three minutes. Most of the songs are under two, and most of the songs are a lot louder and brasher, yet always tight and intense, always fun. Another song that exceeds two minutes is also one of the best (in an album full of excellent tracks). “Motivation” clocks in at a relatively lengthy 2:38, and besides some great start-stop and angular rhythms, the guitars are both jangly and jarring at the same time. Erik’s vocals intone in his shout-sing method. I love how the growling of the bass deepens the intensity in the chorus, and especially in the short bridge. Erik Nervous’ “Bugs” will likely squirm its way into your top albums of the year list, like it has mine.

JUSTIN COURTNEY PIERRE – The Price Of Salt (Epitaph Records, www.epitaph.com)

When I reviewed Justin Courtney Pierre’s last EP, “Anthropologist On Mars,” I complained that it was too short and I wanted more. So, just a few months later, he obliges with another five songs. The music is bright and poppy, overall, but there’s a nice complexity to the arrangements, as well. The lead single, “Firehawk,” has a grungy noisy quality to it, and hints of Fugazi influence in the use of guitar as a percussion instrument. It has loads of feedback, too, and poppy jangle. I love “The Hunter,” which stars with an indie rock feel, but inserts some guitar shrieks and toward the end gets big and dreamy. That pattern repeats with “Oxygen Tank,” starting with a somber sound, delicately instrumented, but as the song evolves it turns from quiet indie to enormous dream-rock. “Get Out Of The Woods” is bouncy, with a power pop meets indie pop sound, and probably my favorite of the five tracks of the EP. “At least It’s Over” is similarly poppy, with guitars that alternately jangle and growl. Once again, Pierre provides a great EP. I still want more, though.

SHRUG DEALER (Hidden Home Records, www.hiddenhomerecords.com)

Shrug Dealer originally released their self-titled EP three years ago, but they’ve now teamed up with Hidden Home Records to release a newly remastered version of their debut. The six songs take the modern skate punk basics of speed and metallic guitar flourishes and add some gorgeous melodies and interesting arrangements. The result is an amped up and elevated version of skate punk. Add to that some socially and politically conscious lyrics, and you’ve got a compelling record on your hands. Take, for example, “Snowflake Wars,” which speaks about people who get offended over other people who get offended by…whatever. Or the amazing (and incredible short at under 30 seconds) “This Song Written On A Mac Book Pro,” and its ironic lyrics about using a phone made by children in sweatshops to call out big tech over worker exploitation, and how this act doesn’t help anyone. Or the hilariously titled, “That’s $10 You Owe Me Now, Dickhead,” which covers the plight of small mom and pop businesses that are getting shut down by mega-chain big box stores that offer cheaper prices and shoddy merchandise. “The Lanes” is one of my favorites of the EP, blending some Green Day like melodic pop punk with speedy and intense skate punk and big 90s emo-ish chords. And the closer, “Who’s Molly?” is an epic of a track, going through various changes. The meter and melodic changes are awesome, and the vocal harmonies and swirling guitars on the chorus (“Time Slows Down,” repeated over and over) are incredible. This is a strong debut, and I look forward to more material from this New York City band.

ADVERTISEMENT – "Freedom" EP (thisisadvertisement.bandcamp.com)

Seattle’s Advertisement, with an album, a couple of cassette singles, and an EP under their belt over the past few years, is back with another new release. It’s really one new song and three remixes of their song “Freedom,” from their self-titled LP. Let’s talk about these remixes. The original version of “Freedom” has a cool 80s drone, but the track is more of a 70s jam on top of that drone. The first track of the new EP, titled “Here It Comes (Freedom)” is a new version of that song that I feel is vastly superior to the original. Rather than an extended jam it’s treated like a real song, and it replaces the organ with some new wave synths. The song is transformed from a somewhat stoner sound to an urgent one, with a lusher arrangement. The other two remixes are EDM versions, “Freedom (Dan Horne Remix)” and “Freedom (Big Step Remix).” The Dan Horne version has more guitars than the Big Step mix, but both are heavy on the dance beats and bring the synths to the forefront. The Big Step is only recognizable as “Freedom,” from the lyrics, though, because it’s more of a mellow chill-out track. The other song here is called “Ladder of Love.” It’s a bluesy folk-rock track with bits of psych, and completely different from any of the other tracks on this EP, and I wouldn’t recognize it as being from the same band. Actually, all of the tracks sound like they could be from different bands. I like “Here It Comes” a lot, but the other three tracks didn’t do much for me.

BOYRACER – Assuaged (Emotional Response Records, www.emotionalresponserecords.com)

I’m embarrassed to say, but have mentioned before, I had a period of time in the late 90s and 2000s when I was not paying much attention to new music. But before that, I was deep into the punk and indie scenes, and there were a few labels that were capturing the lion’s share of the best indie pop. One of them was Slumberland Records, run by Michael Schulman. I first met Michael when he was working at Vinyl Ink Records in Silver Spring, Maryland, a place with which I did a lot of mail order business and visited in person once a year. Michael turned me on to a lot of great music, including some great DC bands of the time, and he also introduced me to several of the bands on his Slumberland Roster. One such band was Boyracer, and I subsequently gobbled up a bunch of their 7” singles and EPs, as well as several of their earlier LPs. When I sort of dropped out of the music scene, for the most part, I lost track of Boyracer. I do see that they’ve remained active, putting out a number of singles and EPs over the years, albeit with multiple lineup changes. But I also see that last year saw their first full-length LP in a dozen years. This year, Boyracer are back with another full-length, just in time for COVID restrictions to begin lifting. And this LP makes me very happy! It’s fourteen songs and 37 minutes of noisy indie pop, with buzzy guitars, bouncy rhythms, and sincere vocals. Some of the songs border on DIY pop punk, like the fun “Tommy McNeil,” with simple Ramones-core chord changes and irreverent lyrics. Some of the songs include trumpet, too! I’m not sure if this is a new addition for this LP or they’ve been doing it for a while, but in some cases, it really adds a lot to the song, like on the lovely “40 Hours.” This song has less noise and more jangle than the others, with a mix of acoustic and electric guitars, and the trumpet really adds to the atmosphere. The overall feel reminds me a bit of retro mod Brit-pop. “Digital Friends” is full of guitar noise, feedback, and unison vocals that comment on the falseness of social media relationships. The bass growls with nasty intent, while the drums keep a steady head bobbing beat. “Miserable Ways” is another one with a more punked-up feel, with plenty of fuzz and noise, and a bubbly poppy melody as counterpoint to the dark lyrics. I love the simplicity of “1am,” with stripped down arrangement and dueling lead vocals. As a matter of fact, I love every song on this album. Boyracer are still making music I love.

FLOWERTOWN (Mount Saint Mountain, www.mtstmtn.com)

Flowertown is the duo of Karina Gill and Michael Ramos. Operating out of the San Francisco Bay Area, the two normally play in separate projects (Cindy and Tony Jay, respectively), but they decided to write a few songs together back in early 2020 because the two were scheduled to play a show together. The pandemic conspired to cancel that show, but Gill and Ramos decided to continue the collaboration during the stay-at-home order, sending tapes back and forth and eventually recording on a four-track tape in a home studio. Paisley Shirt Records released the resulting recordings last year as two cassette-only EPs, and both quickly sold out. Mount Saint Mountain has remastered these and are now releasing it as an LP. The stripped down music is somber and hushed, lo-fi, dreamy pop music. The guitar jangles away and Gill’s vocals are subtle and relaxed. The unhurried pace of these songs and the haze around the edges give the songs a pensive, gauzy quality. I adore the retro sounding song, “The Rope,” with a lovely 50s ballad air, delicately done. It sounds like one of those doomed teenage romance songs, but dialed way back. One of the more upbeat tracks is “Pieta.” The guitars are a little more aggressive, and the pace is quickened from many of the other tracks, but there’s a feeling that the music is heard through filters, a distance away. On “World Peace,” Ramos adds vocals, and we get what I think is the prettiest, saddest sounding song of the album. The drums are replaced with very subtle percussion instruments, and we get just guitar and bass, with Gill and Ramos’ unison vocals, so very understated and delicate. This record is quietly gorgeous.

IZZY TRUE – Our Beautiful Baby World (Don Giovanni Records, www.dongiovannirecords.com)

The overall attitude of this new album and the band is expressed in its title, “Our Beautiful Baby World.” The indie rock music and lyrics have a tenderness to them, an ultimately hopeful tone. “"I ended up choosing the title Our Beautiful Baby World this year as a kind of prayer," says guitarist/vocalist Izzy Reidy. "When I get very sad about the world, I find comfort in zooming out to the macro, universal level. On that scale, humanity is so young, so small, still learning, and full of possibility. When I think of it that way, I feel so tenderly towards humanity. All of the things it does to hurt itself are not its fixed nature, I have hope that it is (very slowly) learning to be gentle." The music certainly has a gentle feel, calm and relaxed. Reidy’s vocals have a casual and spontaneous air, laid-back and understated. The instrumentation is somewhat spare and stripped down, so that there’s a lot of open space to the music. The guitar tone is mostly clear, the percussion is breezy, and the bass lines have hints of funkiness. This is particularly notable on the pretty “You’re Mad At Me,” which was also a lead single released ahead of the album. It reminds me a lot of the indie pop of the 90s that I fell in love with. “Mommy” has a nice lilt to it, sounding like a cross between Americana and a children’s song. Some of the tracks include saxophone, such as “Older,” a gorgeous quiet tune with a bit of jazziness to it. And in “Big Natural” the sax gives the song an off-kilter feel, contrasting with the smooth lush vocals. The sax veritably shrieks, as Reidy’s vocals glide and float. This contrast makes for a compelling song, one of my favorites of the album. And “Gold Chain” is a beautiful ballad that opens with solo saxophone with a breathy tone. The song has a free-form rhythm, meandering and emotional. This is a lovely LP.

TURNPIKE GATES – "City In Heat" EP (turnpikegates.bandcamp.com)

I’m assuming this band, the project of Philadelphia based but New Jersey raised Ryan Smith, was named for the Lifetime song off the “Jersey’s Best Dancers” LP. As far as I can tell, this is the band’s second EP, and the first in two and a half years. I like the interesting mix of indie and pop punk. The songs blend bouncy rhythms with heartfelt lyrics and melodies. The guitars crunch nicely, contrasting with the angst of the vocals, and there’s a raucousness to the songs. A notable track is “Church,” which alternates between slower sections in more of a rock vein and quicker sections with more of a punk feel. The closing track is dramatically different, though. “Make Me” is a quiet song with acoustic guitar and cello. But it’s no less emotionally charged, and is actually a standout of the EP. Turnpike Gates gives us a worthy listen.

VON ERICHS – First Blood Match (Mom’s Basement Records, momsbasementrecords.bigcartel.com)

'90's Ramones-core punk rock? Check. ‘90s WWE wrestling obsession? Check. VonErichs may be presenting their debut full-length LP, but they sound like they came through a time warp from thirty years ago. Not only for the spot-on 90s pop punk sound, but also for the encyclopedic knowledge of the world of professional wrestling, from their name to the titles and topics of their songs, and down to the use of sound clips from WWE broadcasts. The Von Erich family, for those who don’t know, is actually the Adkisson family, many members of whom made a career in professional wrestling. The family has had a tragic history, with most of them dying at young ages of overdose, suicide or illness. One song is titled “Texas Tornado,” which is the nickname used by Kerry Von Erich, who died at age 33 by suicide. Other songs also have references to wrestling stars like Hulk Hogan, Barry “Repo Man” Darsow, Kamala (James Arthur Harris, a wrestler also nicknamed “The Ugandan Giant”), Miss Elizabeth (Elizabeth Ann Hulette, a wrestling manager and sometimes pro-wrestler), and Jim Neidhart. Many of these people died by suicide or drug and alcohol overdose, just like the Von Erichs. Other songs reference other wrestling ephemera such as the “Ghetto Blaster” wrestling move and the “Ring Rat,” a term used for wrestling groupies looking for sexual favors. For the most part what you see (or hear) is what you get: novelty and nostalgia punk rock. The track “Kamala,” though, is done in a punk doo-wop style and makes a reappearance as an a cappella song via a hidden bonus track. These two are the most notable of the songs, because everything else is pretty much same-same 90s pop punk gimmick music.


HELVETIA – Essential Aliens (Joyful Noise Recordings, helvetiamusic.bandcamp.com)

Jason Albertini has been busy. Helvetia has been his main musical vehicle since the breakup of Duster, but this is now his third LP in just over a year. “Fantastic Life” came out shortly before the pandemic took hold, and “This Devastating Map” was released a mere seven months later in August. Now, ten months after that, Helvetia’s rotating roster now includes Samantha Stidham and Steve Gere, the latter with whom Albertini played in Built To Spill. Like “This Devastating Map,” this newest LP consists of relaxed, understated indie rock with some interesting non-standard arrangements and off-kilter touches. Well, maybe not the opening track. It earns it’s “experimental alternative” description. It’s an instrumental track that never resolves to a melody. It has unnerving and unsteady guitar chords and crashing drums, a sort of modern day fanfare. “Crooks Go in the Ground” is the first “proper” song of the LP, and has a lazy hazy feel, with relaxed vocals and a dissonance from detuned acoustic and electric guitars that I find compelling. I like the wobbly guitar sounds and lo-fi drums of the bouncy “Claw.” Halfway through the song extra guitar sounds thicken things up with a sci-fi texture. My favorite track of the LP has to be “Rocks on the Ramp.” It’s got a rolling rhythm, subtle guitar work, understated vocals, a slight Americana melody, and a very quiet, lonesome feel. The synths create an atmosphere that makes me feel like I’m outdoors on a starry night, the enormous sky baring the universe, making me feel tiny and insignificant. Several of the tracks, too, have interplay between acoustic and electric guitars, with buzzy or glittery synths, like “Caroline Stays / The AI Snatch.” It does give the song a funky spacey feel, especially when the synths start going off the melody and the song gets a bit free form. Like Helvetia’s previous output, this album isn’t something for adrenaline junkies. It’s for people who like to chill and think about their music. I count myself among that number.

MASSAGE – Still Life (Mt. St. Mtn., massagetheband.bandcamp.com)

LA’s Massage return with their sophomore full-length LP, one full of music that combines the best elements of jangle pop and shoegaze. The guitars are bright and clear, and the vocals smooth and understated. Think 1990s Sarah Records or Slumberland sort of indie pop sounds. I’ve always liked this type of music, though some deride it as “twee.” All of the songs are really pretty and calming, but the one that stands out the most to me is “10 & 2.” The trumpet is a nice touch in the arrangement, adding a bit of grandeur to the rolling guitar lines. And I love “I’m a Crusader;” the guitars jangle away while the bass sings, a pipe organ underlying the whole thing. The song is a sedate, but you can feel a raucous tune wanting to bust out, giving the track a certain kind of tension. Another notable track is “Michael Is My Girlfriend.” True to form, the song is simple in structure, with an upbeat bounce. With verses about Michael being my girlfriend and Julia being my boyfriend, and speaking to how “the world goes ‘round again,” it seems to be making a statement about gender identity, that in the grand scheme of things, someone’s gender identity has no effect on your life, so why should you care? I remember and miss the days when there were more bands playing music like this. I’m glad some still are, and doing it well.

MONONEGATIVES – Apparatus Division (Big Neck Records, mononegatives.bandcamp.com)

Another smash debut from another excellent Canadian band. Our neighbors north of the border sure do seem to have a breeding ground for some fantastic music. In this case, it’s London, Ontario’s Mononegatives, a band that takes raging garage punk a la Marked Men or Radioactivity, and blends it with ominously buzzing synths. The result is high-energy music with an air of anxiety. “Stilted Entrance” opens the LP with an angular melody reminiscent of 80s post-punk, and vocals that are shout-sung, buried somewhat in the noisy lo-fi mix. But it’s “Reality Is,” the second song of the album, that slays; its got a rapid-fire beat, simple garage punk melody, angry synths underneath, and stabbing vocals. I really like “Living in the Age,” which has a poppy melody, adding in late 70s power pop to the musical mix. The guitars are less lo-fi, befitting the more melodic sound of the track, and the drums give the track a surf-punk aesthetic. The menacing synths swirl in the foreboding and almost anthemic, “Deep Pockets.” “Silicone Warmth Routine” closes the proceedings with a song in which the synths provide an alarming sound, literally sounding like a warning alert. The deliberate march-like pace contrasts with the pounding percussion and stabbing guitars. Excellent debut, recommended.

ROUTINE FACES – Us vs. Them (routinefaces.bandcamp.com)

Debuts are fun. A band comes together to bring a creative vision to life, and a debut LP is the realization of that vision. In the case at hand, “Us vs. Them” is the debut LP from Chicago band Routine Faces. The music melds dream pop, 80s pop, electronic dance music, and a bit of shoegaze, while the songs reflect vocalist an co-songwriter Sahara Glasener-Boles’s Midwest upbringing in a life of poverty, being bullied, dealing with mental illness, and hitting rock bottom. For example, “Be You” is a song about being so uncomfortable with who you are that you wish to be someone else. “How can I be you / Get inside your head / Be you / All the things I can’t do / Come so easily to you,” the song begins. The song ends by reinforcing the feeling of anonymity and invisibility, with “Just outside my door / I watch you pass / Every day you pass without a look back.” I hear the bright synth-pop of 80s band Human League clearly in Routine Faces’ influences, as well as the minimalist repetition of themes such as might be heard from Phillip Glass. The song “Valentimes” is very 80s, right out of that disco/new-wave era. My favorite song is “Better Than Me,” which has a great pop melody, a swagger and bounce, and makes great use of a cappella vocals, with overdubbed harmonizing. Acoustic instruments and various percussion instruments punctuate the song, giving it a whimsical feeling, tough the lyrics are not whimsical; they cover threats and bullying that are motivated by jealousy. While that song has sparer instrumentation, others are big and lush, like “Had It Coming,” which has a thick soundscape of synths, courtesy of Rob Boles, the other half of the core of Routine Faces, and Sahara’s co-writer. Sahara’s vocals are strong and clear, and one of the best things about this album. That she went to university to study vocal performance and that she ha performed with the Cleveland Opera and Ohio Light Opera, as well as singing in various bar bands during her career is easy to see. This album will particularly appeal to fans of 80s pop music and modern dream pop. I do like the latter, but I have more mixed feelings about the former. As a result, though this album is executed to perfection, sonically it doesn’t do a lot for me, outside of a few songs.

BRENT SEAVERS – BS Stands for Brent Seavers (Kool Kat Musik, brentseavers.bandcamp.com)

Brent Seavers of The Decibels found himself with a lot of time on his hands when the pandemic shut things down, halfway through recording a new LP with the band. He began writing and recording, and soon had a full album’s worth of material. So, here we are, with Seavers’ solo debut LP. And, if you’re familiar with The Decibels’ sound, you won’t be surprised that the overall feel on the record is one of retro 60s British invasion pop and 70s power pop. But there are some slight variations, as well. Some songs are buoyant and bubbly pop, like the AM bubblegum “My Little Girl,” or “I Wrote a Song.” Some tracks are a little more aggressive garage-pop (though only a little bit), more in a Decibels vein. “Out In The Rain” is one such track, with a quicker tempo and guitars that are tough, even as they continue to jangle. “Clean Reflection” is another up-tempo track that could have fit in on a Decibels LP, still with a nice pop sensibility. “Flatline” channels a smoothed out Doors sound, and “Unlike Superman” has a more modern indie tone mixed in and a jubilant undercurrent. I mean, this record isn’t going to shake the musical world’s foundations, but it’s a really nice listen.


AUTHORITY ZERO – Ollie Ollie Oxen Free (www.authorityzero.com)

If I didn’t know any better, I would have assumed this band hailed from Orange County, California. But, instead, they’re from Mesa, Arizona. They take a variety of popular punk sounds and combine them together on this new LP, their eleventh (including the live double LP, “Live at the Rebel Lounge”). The band is entering their third decade as a unit, and it shows in how tight the arrangements are. Music ranges from Bad Religion influenced songs such as the title track or “Fire Off Another, to Descendents-like pop punk, like “Nowheres Land.” Some tracks fall smack dab between these two extremes, like “The Good Fight,” or “Bruiser,” which are hella poppy but have the same sort of tight vocal harmonies as Bad Religion. “Ear to Ear” is the one of the different tracks of the LP, being unabashed ska-punk, with a reggae breakdown past the halfway mark, so get ready to skank, because it might be the most fun song of the LP. “Fully Operational” is an interesting mix of ska and 80s pop. Another out of the ordinary entrant is the acoustic “A New Day,” with heavy reverb, a rock steady beat, and strange sound effect interjections. My favorite is probably “The Back Nine,” which is the poppiest song of the bunch. Fans of big punk bands that have been around a few decades will eat this up. If I have one complaint, it’s that the LP is a little bit overproduced. But the band do a fine job here.

THE CATENARY WIRES – Birling Gap (Shelflife Records, www.shelflife.com)

The Catenary Wires includes some well-known names from the past of indie pop: Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey, of Heavenly and Talulah Gosh. With The Catenary Wires, they continue making pretty pop music, but gone are the days when they could be labeled “twee.” The music is lush and thick, dreamy, and psychedelic-tinged. There are full harmonized vocals and a beautifully warm organ in these arrangements that transport you, as you listen, to another era. I love “Alpine,” a haunting song with sections in 12/8 time, blending the feel of a waltz with that of straight time. It’s got a melody that sounds like an adaptation of an ancient folk tune, and the ending is ethereal, raising goose bumps. “Always On Mind” has a psych-folk feel about it mixed with 70s AM radio pop, but with the glittery synths of a 70s sci-fi movie sound track. It evokes memories of the “Summer of Love” and all that. “Mirrorball” moves things forward in time to the 80s disco era, musically, but is a look back from the present day from the perspective of a middle-aged couple who find love at disco revival club. Another lovely track is “Canterbury Lanes,” a song that evokes the Canterbury music scene of days of yore, with its acoustic guitars, recorders, glockenspiel, and harmonized vocals. It, too, is a look back at a lost past, a desire to recapture the glories of years ago. And while the album, as a whole, can be seen as such a bit of nostalgia, it’s a lovely one.

THE HOMELESS GOSPEL CHOIR – This Is a Protest Song (A-F Records, www.a-frecords.com)

Folk-punk singer and comedian Derek Zanetti performs as The Homeless Gospel Choir, armed with just his acoustic guitar, his voice, and his razor sharp wit. He uses these weapons to wage battle against apathy and ignorance. A-F Records surprised everyone with this live LP, titled with Zanetti’s familiar catchphrase with which he introduces many of his songs at live shows. The recording quality isn’t the best, even for a live LP. But with just guitar and vocals, it’s easy enough to listen along and catch everything. And you’re going to want to, because the songs aren’t just funny; the tongue-in-cheek lyrics and heavy sarcasm also reveal a lot of truths about ourselves and the society in which we live. “With God On Our Side” speaks to the religious right’s twisted reasoning that they can do anything they want, because they have “God” on their side, including destroying the environment, oppressing people, and killing other people. Some of the songs are an uncomfortable look in the mirror for us punks, like “Musical Preference,” which exposes hypocrisies in the scene (“this is punk rock, where everybody’s welcome to the fucking party…you get to be exactly who you are, exactly who you want to be…no judgment, no ridicule, unless you don’t listen to Queen. Then I can’t fucking trust you.”). The song enumerates all the genres punks hate and how we judge others negatively for some of the music they listen to. It’s sure to generate some nods of agreement – until Zanetti names a band you like! “Normal” is an anthem about what all punks have in common: we aren’t “normal.” The song recounts how many came to discover punk (“I found my escape / In a Green Day tape”) and celebrates the fact that “You’re never gonna be normal ‘cause you’re a punk.” There are eight songs in all (plus two short spoken word tracks), that all sing of the experiences of being a human, of feeling out of place, of living outside societal norms, and more. Some similar performers focus more on deeply emotional content in their songs, but the satire and self-ridicule Zanetti employs, sure they get laughs, but there’s just as much emotional content here. If you like to laugh and cry at the same time while being entertained, this is a great record to do it with.

NECKSCARS – Don’t Panic (Sell The Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com)

“Don’t Panic” is a debut LP, but the four members that make up the band aren’t green. Will Romeo (vocals, guitar), Justin Parish (guitar, vocals), Colin Harte (bass), and Craig Sala (drums) are all veterans of the New York music scene. The music the band play is big gravelly pop punk with tons of emotional content. Think Hot Water Music or maybe a bit of Anti-Flag. The music is huge, with big open guitar chords and gruff vocals. My one complaint with this style of music is that there’s not a lot of dynamic range, not a lot of variance in the sound from song to song. The similar tempo and volume level of every song gets repetitive, everything blending together into one big song. When there are interesting departures from the formula, my ears perk up. The opening track, “In Front Of Me,” is one of those songs, with a nice angular chord progression that has a great post-hardcore chug to it. I do like these songs, if they’re taken in isolation, shuffled up with other songs in different styles and genres; the musicianship is great. A full album of the same sound is a bit numbing, though.

THE RARE OCCASIONS – Big Whoop (www.therareoccasions.com)

Back with their first LP in three years, The Rare Occasions are the definition of DIY and the definition of eclectic. They recorded, produced, and mixed the songs themselves at home, and even the string quartet that’s included in some tracks were recruited and conducted by band member Luke Imbusch, who also composed the orchestral arrangements. But more than just being DIY, the styles and sounds on this LP are incredibly varied, from grunge-like pop to lush orchestral pop, to almost punk-like rock. The opening track, “Alone,” about striking out on one’s own to escape the expectations of others (the chorus states, “So I swing my shoulders through the thick of it / And face tomorrow alone / Because you own me and I’m sick of it / But you don’t own me no more”), has a gloriously grunge-lite sound in the chorus, while the verses are pure indie-rock goodness. “Bolts,” too, has a melody that harkens back to the late 80s grunge era, but with the edges softened and smoothed. The vocal harmonies are amazing, and the production is so good you wouldn’t guess it was recorded in a living room. But just when you think you know what sort of band The Rare Occasions are, they throw a curve ball at you, like “Stay.” It feels like a classic pop tune, with lush strings and jazzy guitar tone. The dynamic range is incredible, going from hushed to an over-the-top swell. It’s got the feel of a modern-day standard. “Origami” is more upbeat pop, but when those luxuriant strings come in, it’s breathtaking. And “Sparrow” makes me feel lost in time, back in the 1950s or 60s, listening to a Nat King Cole song, the luscious strings wrapping themselves around you. “Call Me When You Get There” represents yet another genre, focused solidly on the guitar-fueled power pop of the late 70s and early 80s. “The American Way” moves the band in a harder direction, more raw and visceral, with an almost punk rock edge, tempered with new wave quirkiness. The closing track, “The Fold,” brings the strings back for another huge emotional ballad. When something is rare, you treasure it more. That just might include the rare occasion of a new album from The Rare Occasions.

UGLI – FUCK (www.mybandisugli.bandcamp.com)

“FUCK” can be an exclamation of intense frustration. It’s usually shouted in anger, sometimes directed at another person, but often at one’s self. It’s also the debut LP from UgLi, a band from South Jersey/Philadelphia. The band’s musical style is something I’ll call grunge-pop; it’s got elements of both, including distorted growling guitars and lovely delicate melodies. “House Pet,” which opens the album, will take you right back to the early 90s era of alternative rock; the guitars snarl deeply, while the beat has a lively bounce and the melody shines brightly. I love the contrast between the dreamy understated verses and noisy chaotic choruses of “Bad Egg” and “When I Was In Love.” “Mourning Coffee” is a tough grunge ballad; tough in its sound and tough in its topic of intense emotional conflict, always ending “face down” no matter how hard you try. “I don’t ever want to die / I don’t want to be alive,” screams the closing lines, highlighting the conflicting emotions of life. “Superball” bounces as much as its namesake, and may be my favorite song of the LP, while “Why Be Pretty” is a soulful ballad that examines how societal expectations of “prettiness” keep women imprisoned. “Why be pretty / When you could be free?” asks the chorus. The closing track, “Naegleriasis” (a fatal brain infection that causes confusion, hallucinations, and seizures), is a sprawling epic that’s at once soulful and dreamy. Trumpet and saxophone provide atmosphere, with shimmery keyboards and guitar. This is a moving debut.

VARIOUS – You Didn’t Think We Could Take It (Subsonics Tribute – Vol. 2) (Mandinga Records, mandingarecords.bandcamp.com)

Subsonics are a self-described “gutter-glam” trio from Atlanta. Their music is raw and stripped down, but it’s not gritty and dirty, like a lot of garage bands. I hear influences of R&B and early rock and roll in their music, with rockabilly and soul mixed in. Brazil’s Mandinga Records decide to pay homage to the longstanding band (their first LP was released in 1992, and their most recent in 2018) by having a variety of bands provide covers of some of their favorite Subsonics tunes. Volume 1 was a brief affair, a 7” EP released in late 2019, and featuring a mere four bands. Volume 2, though, is a full LP with a dozen such tributes. One highlight is the opening track, Ugly Sounds’ desperate rendition of “I Can’t Get Out.” Another is the version of “Frankenstein” presented by Bang Bang Babies (featuring Mila de Guerico). Where the original is bare bones garage rock, this version is thick and dark, slowed down, filled with sludge and evil. I absolutely adore the Disturbios’ rendition of “See Thru Rhonda,” with its lounge-like Casio drum machine, the single note guitar line, the mysterious wailing of the organ, and the deadpan vocals. This version just oozes kitsch, and I love it. Oubliettes transform “Shady Side of the Street” from a tentative-sounding 50s doo-wop ballad into a dreamy number, like something out of the Twin Peaks soundtrack. But I think the most amazing track of this tribute has to be the closer. “Do You Think I’m a Junkie,” I its original form, is a fun hoppin’ rockabilly track. Black Mekon, though, slows it way down, turning it into a heartbreaker. You can hear the sadness, the reaction to an accusation, the feeling of life falling apart. The other bands acquit themselves well, too. Kid Congo Powers covers “I Made You a Clown,” The Mings contribute their cover of “Pretty Pills,” Wallacy Williams gives us “Cruel Is The Night,” “Red Roses is covered by Colt Cobra, Reptilians From Andromeda give us their version of “Eyeball,” and Electric Shit with Walter Daniels provide “La Bonda y La Maldad.” Oh, and the song that provides the album’s title, “I Didn’t Think You Could Take It” is covered buy Sloks. These are great songs, and great versions.


ST. LENOX – Ten Songs of Worship and Praise for Our Tumultuous Times (Don Giovanni Records, www.dongiovannirecords.com)

I’ve made no secret of my love for St. Lenox. Each of the three previous albums have ended up on my year end list of best records of the year, and one of them made my best records of the decade list. Now St. Lenox has returned, newly signed with Don Giovanni Records. At first I didn’t pay close attention to the title, but as I listened, I couldn’t help but notice that the ten songs contained therein all had a distinctly liturgical quality to them. Then I noticed the title and it all made sense. Andrew Choi, the man behind St. Lenox, pulls from his life experiences for inspiration in his songwriting, and he has a knack for getting to the truth of matters with his touching and poignant lyrics. In the past his albums have revolved around themes of growing up and coming of age, of the experience of being the child of immigrants, and of trying to make one’s way through life as an adult, forging a career, and finding love. This time out, Choi provides his observations on the need to find something to believe in as the world becomes more and more chaotic. And once again, his songs leave me more than a little choked up.

The album opens with “Deliverance,” which is a moving introduction to the themes to be explored. It’s a reflection on the death of someone close to Choi, and how, though he’s never put much stock in religion, he feels the need to believe in something. He sings about how the death of his friend and his own aging have forced him to start thinking of things like inheritance and whether an atheist can get into heaven. The church hymn-like song ends with the lines, “Jesse, the world's been trembling mightily / Every day since you've gone / I'm ready to believe in something these days / Maybe I can believe in deliverance now.” The subject of the impact of death continues in “Arthur is at a Shiva,” in which a variety of experiences with death are covered, the music slightly reminiscent of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.” “Great Blue Heron (Song of Solomon)” has some lovely 70s pop music, played with delicate harpsichord-like keyboards blended with organ. It seems less religious in nature at first blush, but in the lyrics about memories of spending time in nature, the sights of the blue heron flying over the water, of the trees and the sound of the wind rustling the leaves, all thoughts while commuting to work in the concrete jungle of the city, I sense not just memories, but a feeling of spirituality, that there’s something greater than our daily grind out there.

One of the strongest spiritual urges of humanity is to raise a family, to leave behind something of yourself through children, and passing along your life experiences to them. Choi wonders in one song, “What is it Like to have Children?” In it he remembers stories from his parents about his own birth, and his desire to raise children of his own with his husband. He has the same worries as anyone considering having children, summed in the verse, “It fills me with fear and wonder at the very thought / Of raising precious children of my very own / Will I be the world's number one father, like on the coffee mug / Or will they still resent me for something I did many years ago.” The solemn music contrasts with the deeply passionate singing, just as Choi contrasts being at odds with his own father with yearning to provide unconditional love. I love the lines he sings about his own father to this child he longs to have, “It sits like some baggage in the middle of my head / Like centuries of violence and domesticated warfare / Though I'd like you to meet him when you are a little older / In truth he is a great man though I’d never tell that to him directly.” The song is filled with hopes and dreams and, yes, fears; fears about the prospect for the future of a child in a tumultuous world where “fires rage in streets and forests west of us.”

Other topics include Choi’s early experience with religion in the buoyant gospel song, “Bethesda,” and developing an understanding of how people come to religious beliefs in the breezy and bouncy “Gospel of Hope.” The importance of always keeping a youthful and hopeful outlook on life is the topic of “Teenage Eyes.” It contrasts the weariness of “middle-aged Tom” at an open mic night, his songs stale and trite, with the need to maintain confidence and enthusiasm, just like we have when we’re teenagers, our whole lives before us, when we think, no, we know we can conquer the world. Underneath the subtly rocking melody, Dwight Eisenhower’s speech, “Three Imperatives for World Peace” is heard, underpinning the need for hope. “Our Tumultuous Times” speaks to trying to find meaning in the chaos around us and trying to figure out how to deal with it all. Do we “yell on the internet at the top of your lungs?” Do we “take to the streets on a regular workday?” Do we love our neighbors and “pray for the destitute among us?” Or do we “give up yourself to the world around us?” And the closing track, “Superkamiokande!,” speaks of the mysteries of the universe in a spiritual way. Super-Kamiokande is the world’s largest underground neutrino detector, located in Japan. The song sings of the wonders of nature, the wonders of the earth, and the wonders of the universe, and the humbling feeling one gets in the presence of such awe-inspiring truth and beauty. The album closes with this verse: “I’ve heard stories of great destroyers / Crushing galaxies into atoms / And I am fearful of great destroyers / I've been praying a lot since then / I’ve heard stories of our creator / Stretched his arms out into creation / Filled with love of his creation / I've been humbled a lot since then.” Faith and spirituality don’t have to be found only in organized religion; meaning is all around us. We just need to open our eyes and our minds to be awed and inspired. And, I think, that’s the ultimate message Choi sends to us.

CHRISTMAS BRIDE – Dark Romance of a Midnight Wanderer (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)

Christmas Bride is the invention of Chicagoan Davey Hart, and this latest LP was three years in the making. Christmas Bride is mainly a one-man operation, but Hart brings in various friends to help fill things out, and lately that’s included Pasha Pear (The Crustations), Phil Sudderberg (Spirits Having Fun), and Angel Marcloid (Fire-Toolz, Nonlocal Forecast) taking turns on the drums, as well as Bret Koonz (Cool Memories, Truancy Club) helping out with backing vocals. This band is all over the place, with a wide variance in punk rock styles. They break the cardinal rule of album sequencing, which is to put one of your best songs first, to capture listeners’ attention. In this case, “My Shadow Bracelet” turned me off, and I almost turned off the record. But I persisted. The remaining thirteen songs (total album length of 40 minutes) run the gamut from Bad Religion inspired melodies and harmonies to ALL influenced jazz-punk, and various pop and punk styles in between. It’s clear the band are in this for the fun and laughs, with songs like “Christian Ska,” “Cereal Monogamist,” Embarrassing Sexual Moments,” and more. “Christian Ska” is, perhaps, the most Bad Religion-like song of the album, with its deep harmonies, and mostly dark melody, though it gets bright and Descendents-like at points. Quite a dichotomy! “Cereal Monogamist” has that angular jazz-punk sound blended with pop punk that ALL perfected, while “Trippi’s Fudge” features a more indie sound and potentially double-entendre lyrics about the lovely taste of the title treat. I adore “(Obsessed With a) Love Type-Thing,” a track that mixes the angular ALL style with sweet sappy pop punk a la The Mr. T Experience. “Kajagoogoo Head” is named for the 80s band that tried to blend new wave with disco funk and resulted in music that was the definition of bland. It’s ironically the hardest and heaviest track of the LP. Lyrics hilariously reference Kajagoogoo’s hit song, “Too Shy.” The intro to “Unforcertain Future” is awe-inspiring and way too short, and it leads into what may be my favorite track of the LP. It’s the brightest and poppiest song of the album, and I love the guitar tone that embellishes things; it pierces straight through to the soul. I’m glad I kept listening past that first track, because this is enjoyable.

THE CUTTHROAT BROTHERS AND MIKE WATT – The King Is Dead (Hound Gawd! Records, www.houndgawd.com)

They come from Hawaii, but sound like they come from the bayous of Louisiana, if the bayous had greasy garages. They’re real-life barbers, and use that as a shtick in their act, wearing “blood” stained white shirts when they play, calling themselves “the Sweeney Todds of punk.” They play bluesy garage rock. And they were interviewed by none other than Mike Watt for his “Watt from Pedro” show, during which they had the bold idea to ask Watt if he would play bass on their new LP. To their surprise, he said yes, and “The King Is Dead” is here. Overall, the music is garage rock with a southern swamp-blues aesthetic. With guitar tuned to growl and spit, for the most part it’s lively stuff. The title track is a notable exception; it’s a slow burner, a doleful tune. “Out of Control” is a departure, too, with more of a power pop melody and no blues chord progressions. Of the rest of the tracks, I think I like “Candy Cane” best. I like the garage-punk sound, and the way the guitars meld power chords with blues slides. It’s one of the more energetic songs of the LP, too. As a whole, the album is OK. For the genre, it’s a little too clean sounding. I wish the mix had been a little dirtier and grittier.

RADIO DAYS – Rave On! (Sounds Rad, www.soundsradical.com)

Radio Days are an Italian power pop band that have been around since 2008, but sound like they’re from 1980. The songs on this LP are classic power pop just like the songs that ruled the airwaves 40 years ago. Some of the songs rock and roll harder than others, like “I Got a Love.” Some bridge the gap between prototypical power pop and more modern indie and pop punk, like “Lose Control.” Some have a Beatles-esque vibe, like the jangly Brit-pop “Walk Alone.” I really enjoy the bubbly “Running Around,” with its very retro sound that would have been very at home on AM radio back in the day. And “What Is Life” alternates between a raucous garage chorus and breezy verses. If you’re a fan of power pop you should check out these Italians. I never would have guessed Italy would birth a band that sounds so American, but given the frequent tours that Paul Collins (of The Beat and The Nerves fame) has done, and American ex-pats keeping power pop alive on the continent, I guess it makes sense.

THE ROUTES – Instrumentals II (Groovie Records, www.groovierecords.com)

I’ve reviewed releases from The Routes in the past, and have always enjoyed their mix of garage and psych sounds a lot. This new LP is a departure from that style, though still retro in character. This is, as the title implies, an all-instrumental LP, the second the band has released (the first one came out way back in 2013). The ten tracks on this new LP range from classic surf rock of the 1960s to spaghetti western style, and man is this stuff fun – and really well done. Right from the start, with “Pistolero,” you’re instantly transported to another place, another era. You can imagine the chases on horseback and the showdown in the dusty town square at high noon. I love the use of bright intervals in the melody of “Kapow!,” which will bring your thoughts to waves and sand and sun. Just don’t go looking for Annette or Frankie, this stuff ain’t the cleaned up Hollywood beach, this is the real deal. “Apocalypso” is reminiscent of the classic hit, “Tequila,” almost sounding like a cover, but it isn’t. “Ain’t It Black” has to be my favorite track of the LP. It’s bright, it’s mysterious, it’s very cinematic, it’s exciting, and it’s full of forward motion and energy; it sounds like it could have come from the soundtrack to a 1960s spy thriller film. I’m not normally big on instrumental rock and roll music, but damn, this stuff brings me joy. And it’s not even made by a California band – The Routes are based in Japan and led by a Scots expat!

SATANIC TOGAS / THE ZOIDS – Split (Goodbye Boozy Records, www.goodbyeboozydigital.bandcamp.com)

Hailing from Sydney, Australia, Satanic Togas specialize in old school lo-fi punk fucking rock. Their two songs on this split (“Strange Attraction” and “Unaware”) are each barely over a minute long, but pack enough energy to power a small city. The music is raw and primal, with simple chords and melody, like all stripped down punk rock. This is the antidote for all the overdone bloated music that’s coming out today. On the flipside, The Zoids offer up two tracks, as well, “Running Man” and “Crash Mind.” The first is, again, some great primitive lo-fi punk rock, but this time with some weird spacy synth bleeps and bloops in the mix that later bleed into the guitar lines. The latter of the pair, though, is even spacier, with science fiction sound effects going on in the background. There’s no real melody on “Crash Mind,” it’s just primal, guitars and vocals riffing on just a couple of notes while the drums pound steadily. This last track doesn’t really do it for me like the other three do.


BOLTERGEIST – Maybe Next Year (High End Denim Records, highenddenimrecords.bandcamp.com)

Boltergeist is a new Canadian punk band born out of extra time with nothing to do during the pandemic. Featuring members of Trashed Ambulance and Frank Dux, this four-song debut EP features darkly melodic punk with slight tinges of skate punk and broad arrangements that pack an emotional punch. The opening track, “Glory Days,” is a song about the isolation and feeling of imprisonment during the pandemic, and remembering the “glory days when I wasn’t trapped in this cage.” I like the almost-poppy “No, You’re an Idiom,” which has gliding harmonies in the vocals, and lyrics that use dozens of well-known idioms to highlight the feeling of helplessness, of everything going wrong, like the universe is conspiring against you. “Hometown Hostage” is a driving track about being stuck in a rut, letting life pass you by, and a reminder that “we have limited time / so take that leap.” The EP ends with the soaring and inspirational “Saving Daylight,” a song that fans of bands like Nothington will enjoy. Boltergeist intend to keep going and playing shows once that starts up again. Good thing.

HARD NIPS – Master Cat (Dadstache Records, www.dadstacherecords.com)

Brooklyn’s Hard Nips has been a band for over a decade now. The foursome came together in New York by way of Japan, deciding over many sessions of drinking and talking that they could be a rock and roll band. So in 2009 they picked up their instruments for the first time. It’s the story of many punk bands back in the 1970s and 1980s. But despite the band’s insistence that their music melds “the early punk sonics of the Ramones and Blondie with the off-kilter fun of the B-52s,” the band really plays what I would call garage pop. The songs are fun and bouncy enough, particularly “Blender X,” which opens the eight-song LP. It’s got a retro 60s garage feel, though the keyboard tone is more 80s new wave than 60s garage. I do like the opening section of the title track, with its quiet Japanese folk song feel, before it launches into minimalist new wave pop. The hardest edgiest tracks of the LP, “Workaholic,” “Analog Guys,” and “Motto” aren’t really all that hard at all. They’re relatively mild, bubblegum indie rock, if you will. Then there are the smoother, slightly dreamy indie pop songs like “Alternative Dreamland” and “Anaconda,” with the latter having a bit of funkiness injected into it. This dichotomy is explained by the differing writing styles of two of the primary songwriters of the group. Gooch is responsible for those calmer tracks, and the more raucous ones are the work of Saki. Overall, it’s a fine enough album. But you can tell that they started out by learning how to play their instruments and how to be a band. They’re still working to perfect it, but they’re also still having fun.

NEW STANDARDS MEN – Spain’s First Astronaut (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)

New Standards Men is just the sort of thing we would have played on free-form non-mainstream radio station WZRD, 88.3 FM in Chicago, back when I was a DJ there. The station champions the obscure, the out of the ordinary, and the marginalized of the music world. New Standards Men specialize in instrumental and improvisational noise-rock, blending rock and roll with free jazz. This two-track cassette is a full album, really, with each track being a nearly 20 minute piece, titled “Spain’s First Astronaut I” and “Spain’s First Astronaut II.” The rhythm is driving, the drone of the guitars and the production team up to create an incredible atmosphere, and the saxophone provides a wild turbulent musical experience. If you’re looking for happy little pop songs, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for musical adventure, tag along with New Standards Men. You’ll be taken to places you never knew existed.

PARTING – Unmake Me (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, www.cylsrecords.com)

What is “emo revival?” I don’t know, but that’s how the press materials describe Parting, the new project from Keith Latinen (Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate)), Ben Hendricks (Annabel), Gooey Fame (Dowsing), and John Guynn. I suppose these bands were categorized as “emo” back in their day, but to me, emo is the music of the late 80s and early 90s that came out of Washington, D.C. and the many bands influenced by that style. Emo later became a term applied to screaming hardcore bands (also called “screamo”), and then later interchangeably with “pop punk” to bands that were, in my opinion, neither. That Parting is being lumped into that category doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re lovely. The seven songs here are pretty indie rock. I guess the emo-ness comes from the earnest vocals and heart-on-your-sleeve lyrics. The music glides brightly, with lush arrangements and wide dynamic range. There’s interesting interplay between guitars, both of which have gorgeous tone. There’s nice use of syncopation to give the effect of mathishness, though the time signatures don’t really change. I think my favorite track of the mini-LP is the waltz time “Stapler’s Monster,” which is delicate and enchanting. Parting have won me over with this debut.

PURPLE WITCH OF CULVER – Malibu’s Passing (Loantaka Records, www.loantaka-records.com)

Saxophonist Sarah Safaie and producer/ multi-instrumentalist Evan Taylor are back with another new single to be released on Taylor’s Loantaka Records imprint. And while the previous singles I’ve reviewed have consisted of jazzy-funky music with beat poetry style vocals, this new one goes for a dreamy lounge feel. Gone is the spoken word stream of consciousness, replaced with hazy singing. Gone is the funk, replaced with a torch song like ballad. It’s very pretty and soothing. But I do love those previous singles better.

THE RAGING NATHANS – Waste My Heart (Rad Girlfriend Records, www.radgirlfriendrecords.com)

Not a band to let the grass grow under their feet, The Raging Nathans return less than a year after last year’s excellent LP, “Oppositional Defiance.” And as good as that LP was (it made my list of 2020’s best LPs), this one is even better. These Ohioans just keep getting tighter and more creative. There’s a variety of song styles here, from pounding rapid-fire punk tunes to gentler pop punk to dark almost skate-punk sounds. The title track leads things off, and it’s a top-notch rager, speedy and powerful, melodic and angry. It’s 100% my favorite Raging Nathans song, not just from this LP, but of all of them. “I Could Never Fall In Love” was a huge surprise, with its Beach Boys style harmonies and smooth pop punk vibe. “Wide Awake” is an unusually bouncy pop punk number for the Nathans, reminding me somewhat of earlier Descendents material. “Out of Touch” is another favorite, with a poppy quickstep lope, and guitars and harmonized vocals that are equally thick. “Remember” harkens back to 1990s and 2000s emo-ish pop punk, while “Cemetery Drive” blends pop punk and skate punk sounds. The desperation in the lead vocals in “Tempus Fuck It” is palpable, and the angularity of the lead guitar line plus the darkness of the melody add up to a great track. Harmonized vocals that are echoed in the guitars yield a classic pop sound. “Shadow of Youth” is a powerful street punk/hardcore track, and another LP highlight. Despite the various disparate styles of music presented in these songs, they’re still all recognizably from The Raging Nathans. Once again, they have released a “best of the year candidate.”

RID OF ME – Last (Knife Hits Records, www.knifehitsrecords.com)

The heavy noisy band, Rid of Me, is back with a new two-song cassette. The first track is a cover of the Sheryl Crow hit, “If It Makes You Happy,” and wow, what a great version of the song this is! It’s slower than the original, with layers of sludge and distortion, turning the jangly pop song into a gut-wrencher. The other track, “Form,” is equally thick and viscous, but with a gloomy melody out of a post-apocalyptic view of the future as seen from the 1980s. It’s a fine song, but that cover is killer.

SEIZED UP – Marching Down the Spiral (Cursed Blessings Records, www.cursedblessingsrecords.com)

Seized Up is one of those hardcore “super groups,” featuring members of other well-known bands. In this case, it includes current and former members of The Distillers, BL’AST, All You Can Eat, and Good Riddance. After last fall’s quality debut with Pirate’s Press, the band are back with a new 7” EP via Cursed Blessings. And if you’re a fan of aggressive music, I think you’re going to like this one. The EP contains three songs of strong post-hardcore rage, with pounding drums, throbbing bass, angular stabbing guitar power, and angry shouted vocals. It’s straight-up 90s style, with the middle song, the title cut, being the most hardcore. The bookend tracks, “Forum of Decay” and “Dead Zone Denied,” are not quite as fast as the title track, but they’re no less hard-hitting. Definitely a good one for post-hardcore fans.

TALK SHOW HOST – Mid-Century Modern (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)

I first came across Talk Show Host four years ago, and greatly enjoyed the Toronto band’s self-released EP “Not Here To Make Friends.” Now they’re signed to Wiretap Records and releasing their debut full-length LP. They say they’re influenced by 90s music, but this seems to me to be much better than anything from the 90s, and more influenced by power pop than punk. The songs are catchy as all hell, with great songwriting and top-notch arrangements. The number one hit of the LP, without a doubt, is the spectacular power pop song, “Syntax Error OK.” The chorus is quite Beatles-like, complete with solid harmonies and a classic melodic line. “You Asshole!” is a fun song, mixing a pounding rhythm with a melody that propels the song forward really well. The surf guitar reverb and the gang vocals punctuating the track are spot on. “Warmest Condolences” is solid modern indie rock track with a swagger in its step, and “Too Many Problems” is a fantastically frenetic track that’s not ska but has a jumpy ska underpinning. There isn’t a bad song on this LP; it’s excellent throughout, and recommended for all fans of power pop, pop punk, and just good music.




HOTEL ETIQUETTE – Ex Questions (Triple Hammer Records, www.hoteletiquetteny.com)

Hotel Etiquette isn’t just being considerate of other guests when you’re staying at an inn, it’s also the solo project from Mike Hansen, drummer for the band Pentimento. Rather than idling during the pandemic isolation, Hansen spent time writing and recording, and his first solo EP under the Hotel Etiquette moniker, “Sex Questions,” came out last summer. This mini-LP is the follow-up is creatively titled “Ex Questions,” and its songs cover topics such as depression, loneliness, and desperation, the things that result from relationships that don’t work out. Musically, Hotel Etiquette varies from dreamy ambient to hardcore, but most of the songs are a blend of 2000’s era emo/pop punk and modern pop punk sounds. Punctuating some of the tracks are recordings of what I assume is Hansen and friends bullshitting around with each other and having fun. Those give the record a more relaxed and informal feel that goes along with the warmth of the songs. I love the title track, which opens things; it’s the dreamy ambient track I mentioned. Reverb and other studio effects create a drowsy half-waking feel. And immediately after, “”I Wanna Be Alright” hammers hard, mixing post-hardcore power and 2000s soaring emoish sounds. “What Friends Do” is another favorite, with a bounce to its beat, jangling guitars, and vocals that go from calm and collected to frantic. The guitar tone in “I’m in Love With (Judging) You)” is amazing, sounding trumpet-like, perfect for this song that leans more toward the pop end of the spectrum. It took me a few listens, but I’m enjoying this.

IRMANS – Hermano (No Front Teeth Records, www.nofrontteeth.co.uk / Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)

Irmans (the name means “brothers” in the Galician language) is yet another project born of the global pandemic. Unable to play live shows with their respective bands, Jose Reilly and Manuel Santos began writing and playing as a duo. Francho Wilson came on board a few months later, and Irmans came to fruition. This single represents the bands debut, and it features two songs. “I Wanna See You” has elements of surf rock, reminding me of some of the west coast post-punk sounds of the mid-80s. The title track has a harder feel, almost Spits-like, but slowed down to a more leisurely relaxed pace. A promising beginning.

JACKSON REID BRIGGS & THE HEATERS – Waiting On A Corner (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)

A friend of mine recently listed out who he thought were the top five Australian bands ever. The list contained the usual suspects, like The Saints, Radio Birdman, and AC/DC. I plan on telling him how woefully remiss he was for not including Jackson Reid Briggs & The Heaters, because this album rocks! The band play garage rock with a punk attitude, but more than that, these tracks have soul. There’s a deep R&B quality here that’s incredibly appealing. The music is raucous and wild, with non-stop power. Listen to “Been Waiting” and hear the bluesy soulfulness, even amidst the garage intensity. Listen to “Eaten Alive,” and you’d swear there was a band full of trumpets and saxophones playing along (dammit, Jackson, you need to do that!), so strong is the R&B feel in this one. The bass drones, the guitars pummel with rhythm, and the organ sings out a melody, while Briggs’ vocals scream out with intensity. The album never lets up, never lets you down.

KNOWSO – Rare Auld Trip/ Psychological Garden (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)

When I reviewed Knowso’s debut LP, “Specialtronics Green Vision,” last year, I raved about its creativity. I commented on the angular melodic lines, guitar jabs, off-kilter bass, and vocals that are spoken in unison, and about how these Ohioans evoke experimental rock music of the early 80s. This sophomore LP is brings more of the same, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s still way out there, way different from any other music being made by anyone. But, at the same time, it is somewhat repetitive. It’s still good, it’s still creative and different, but I’m not sure I would listen to the full album in the future. A track here and there in shuffle mode is the best way to listen. That said, the best tracks, in my opinion, include the urgent and alarming sounds of “Staring at the Spiral,” and “You Lick The Boot,” which has a semblance of pop melody and a political message about the efficacy of protests and riots and a commentary about those who take the sides of police.

MAINFRAME – "Employee" b/w "Rip" (Goodbye Boozy Records, www.goodbyeboozydigital.bandcamp.com)

Lo-fi insanity abounds in this new single from Mainframe. This is synth punk, speedy and sleazy, with as much of a garage twist as you can put into synths. “Employee” is the more “traditional” punk sounding of the pair, while “RIP” is poppier and bouncier, but still noisy and chaotic. Both tracks end with strange hilarious tapes of some music played at what seems to be 10x speed. Fun stuff.

MATT CASKITT AND THE BREAKS – Welcome Home (Bypolar Records / Defiant Robot Records / Swamp Cabbage Records / Tiny Dragon Music, www.mattcaskittandthebreaks. bandcamp.com)

This has to be one of the most anticipated albums of 2021 in the Southern California/West Coast music scene. After the indefinite hiatus of the band Caskitt, everyone wondered what front man Matt would do next. MC&TB have been around a few years now, playing live shows (except for the past year) and answering that question. Over the past year plus they’ve been teasing fans with rumors of recording sessions, and now the debut LP is finally here. Matt’ built this band with other veterans of the San Diego DIY music scene, and they’ve become a top notch team, consisting of Michael Kelly and Ricky Martinez on guitars, AJ Peacox on bass, and of course Matt Caskitt on drums and lead vocals. “Welcome Home” is aptly titled, as it’s a return of Matt’s songwriting to the style that Caskitt played so well, but moved away from on their last LP, “Old Fires New Frontier,” which was harder edged with too much slick metallic guitar work. “Welcome Home” returns to more of a pop punk and indie mix of heartfelt personal songs with soaring melodies, Matt’s lofty vocals towering over the tight instrumentals. This is a return to the Caskitt style I, personally, loved so much. Like many of his songs, the songs on “Welcome Home” are somewhat autobiographical, dealing with the tumultuous changes and ending of a relationship, divorce, heartbreak, acceptance, and moving on to open a new chapter of life.

One highlight of the LP for me is “Los Angeles Miserables,” which recounts a particularly difficult phase of Matt’s previous relationship. It’s become a staple of the band’s live sets, and this recording of it is even better than the live version. The song’s opening, with hollow lo-fi recording of the chorus, echoes the hollowness that Matt found in life in America’s second largest city. AJ’s bass lines and the distant sounding guitars add a sense of melancholy, and Matt’s singing has a desperate quality. Another highlight is “Thursday Night Heavyweights,” sort of a companion piece to Caskitt’s “Friday Night Lightweights,” which is one of my all-time favorite Caskitt songs, about finally coming out of your shell and living your life authentically when you normally hide who you really are. While that song is uplifting and celebratory, the new one is the opposite, about feeling trapped and miserable, with music that’s harder and vocals that are more anguished. The use of a vintage recording from the 1951 Rocky Marciano vs. Joe Louis boxing match at one point is a nice touch, with the announcer shouting, “It’s all over! He can’t get up!” as a nod to the feeling of constantly getting punched in the gut by life. I love the sweet, romantic sound of “Escape Route For Two,” with guest vocals by Molly Perkins. It shows that no matter how bleak things may seem, there are ways out, back to happiness. Perkins’ singing is a lovely surprise. Other guest vocalists include Jax Mendez of the band Hey, Chels on “Fall Weather,” and Ricky Schmidt of Western Settings and Ricky on the closing track, “All Good Things Come To An End.” That last track is less about endings than it is about acceptance and moving forward in life. It’s the most driving track of the album, and the most hopeful sounding. This is the album I was hoping for. It’s the album we need.

NEEDLES//PINS (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Canada produces a lot of excellent bands, and Vancouver’s Needles//Pins is no exception. I first encountered this band almost exactly eight years ago, when they were on tour in the US with fellow Canucks, The Steve Adamyk Band. They played a memorable set at the venerable VLHS warehouse (RIP), and they’re still making excellent music. They’ve made us wait a long time for a new LP; “Good Night, Tomorrow” came out four years ago. But thankfully they got themselves into the studio and have presented us with ten new tracks on a self-titled LP. And the same evolution in their sound I noted in my review of that LP has continued, moving further away from their garage punk roots and more into the big beer-soaked sing-along West Coast pop punk sound. But even amidst the gravelly vocals and broad sounds, there’s plenty of pop melody, jangling guitars, a bouncy step, and the warmth of keyboards. Songs like “A Rather Strained Apologetic” bring back memories of Awesome Fest shows, and it’s one of my favorite songs of the LP. The combination of pop melody and huge sing-along sections is evocative of the 2010s era and bands like Dan Padilla or The Slow Death. “Of Things Left to Chance” has a nice Nirvana-like grunge edge to it. The short minute-long blast of goodness called “Baleful” is another favorite, with its bright melody made brighter by the keyboards, contrasting with the gruffness of the vocals. The closing track, “The Tyranny of Comforts,” is the most different from the rest, with a darker post punk sound, an unrelenting rhythm hammering, and a simple yet powerful melody. The use of the keyboards as percussion gives the song the sound of alarm, a nervous unbalanced feeling that’s downright chilling. This may be my favorite Needles//Pins LP yet, and it’s certain to make my year-end list of the best of 2021.

NEIGHBORHOOD BRATS – Confines of Life (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Another band I first saw at Awesome Fest, Neighborhood Brats, are a powerhouse of a band, formerly from the Bay Area and now in Los Angeles for the last several years. Most of Neighborhood Brats’ output is classic punk and hardcore, but on this, their third studio LP, they branch out somewhat, adding post-punk, surf-punk, and melodic power pop influences, too. The band tackles sensitive subjects on this LP, such as sexual harassment and assault (“Harvey Weinstein (Is a Symptom)”), the dramatic rise of racism we’ve seen in the country (“All Nazis Must Die”), the crisis of homelessness (“Transitional Housing”), and climate change (“Who Took the Rain”). I really like “Miss America Pageant,” which blends Dischord-style post hardcore with surf-punk. “We’ll Find You” and especially “Harvey Weinstein (Is a Symptom)” are fast and furious 80s hardcore ragers that are sure to get your blood pumping. “All Nazis Must Die” is a new entry into the classic surf-punk instrumental genre. And I really like the garage punk sounds of “I Want You,” which I think I recognize from some live shows I’ve seen. You can’t be a fan of punk without being a fan of Neighborhood Brats. Recommended.


CADDY – Detours and Dead Ends Vol. 1 (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

This is an interesting concept. Caddy is the brainchild of Tomas Dahl, a Norwegian power-pop fanatic. He’s collected together ten forgotten power-pop songs from the 70s and 80s and breathed new life into them on this unique collection of covers. For example, who remembers the band Sgt. Arms? Certainly not me! But here’s one of the two songs from their sole single, released in 1982, “Walking On The Roof.” If anything, Caddy’s version is superior to the original, giving the song a somewhat thicker and tougher sound. The best tracks on this collection, in my opinion? “Cost of Love,” originally done by Screaming Sneakers, an early band bridging the gap between punk rock and power pop in 1982. Their sole EP included this upbeat, powerful track that’s raucous but very bouncy and melodic, and Caddy’s version is true to the original, though with a denser sound. It’s a band and song I had never heard of, but it’s aces. In 1980 The Cretones released “Cost of Love,” a Stiff Records style song, and Caddy thickens the arrangement and adds overdubbed harmonies in the vocals. Plus the song feels like it’s got a bit more spring in its step, making it a standout of the album. And Chrissy’s boppin’ 1980 track that mixes new wave and power pop, “Mark My Words,” is slowed down and reimagined as a slightly grungier indie rock song. Most of the tracks are, well, fine power pop but nothing that stands out, and one can understand why many of these bands only ever released one or two records. But Caddy really improves on most of these songs. If you’re a fan of classic power pop, you’ll have as much fun hunting down the original tracks online and comparing the covers as I did. I’m assuming the “Vol. 1” attached to the title implies Caddy’s got more of these old records collected and is working on resurrecting more songs from the past.

DIVIDED HEAVEN – The Filthy 15 (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)

If you’re old enough to remember the PMRC, the Parents’ Music Resource Center, you’ll recall it was an organization founded by Tipper Gore to censor the music industry, especially metal, rap, and punk acts. You may recall that the “Filthy 15” is a reference to the PMRC’s list of the fifteen worst offenders of their delicate sensibilities, and that the list included bands like Prince, Judas Priest, Mötley Crüe, Madonna, and even Cyndi Lauper. This new song recalls all the records that kept Divided Heaven front man Jeff Berman alive in his youth, and how there were forces that wanted to burn all the records. Musically, this one of the most lively and raucous from Divided Heaven in some time, and it’s great to remember that they can do more than singer-songwriter material, as good as that is. This single is rapidly becoming one of my favorites from Divided Heaven in some time.

DUCKS LTD. – Get Bleak (Carpark Records, www.carparkrecords.com)

Formerly known as Ducks Unlimited (I guess they began running short on ducks), the Toronto band are re-releasing their 2019 debut EP, adding three more songs to turn it into a seven-song mini LP. The songs remind me a lot of 90s indie pop records from labels like Sarah Records or Slumberland, with a clean breezy guitar sound, poppy beat, and vocals trying to sound indifferent while singing about topics that one can’t feel indifferent toward. I particularly like “Gleaming Spires,” one of the more up-tempo songs, for its spritely guitar and lyrics that seem to speak to idealization of a relationship. “Annie Forever” is a light and airy song, delicate and pretty. “Anhedonia” is, ironically,” a pleasant song that feels like it’s trying to be bright but has a pall cast over it. It’s got a deliberate beat and insistent rhythm guitar with lead guitar trying mightily to put on a brave face, but you can sense the glum rainy day feel of the song. It’s perfect. The three new tracks add in a dose of 80s Britpop. “Oblivion” has a Joy Division bass sound, and jangly guitars, while sounding dark and depressed, and may be my favorite of the mini-LP. “As Big As All Outside” and “It’s Easy,” sound like two versions of the same song, with melodic lines or chord progressions that are too similar, but they’re nice, nonetheless. If you’re a fan of indie-pop that sounds both bright and sad, this is for you. Recommended.

GHOULIES – Reprogram (Goodbye Boozy Records, goodbyeboozydigital.bandcamp.com)

I can hardly write a better review for this Australian band’s new EP than what came in the press announcement: “This EP might sound something like a thirteen tricycle pile-up under an exploding piñata, but the band’s caustic wit should be disclaimer enough against eating their candy.” Ha! This stuff is mind-blowingly chaotic and bubbly and sugary sweet at the same time, synths running to overload along with manic guitars and desperate vocals. The circus clowns riding those thirteen tricycles to their demise are hopped up on speed, rushing around in a crazed frenzy, all trying to whack their sticks at the piñata without a thought to the competing traffic. Insanity abounds, in songs like “American Stut-ly,” which sounds like the theme from some demented sitcom. “The Wig” whirls like a bunch of hyperactive brats running circles around you and screaming in your ears, but always out of reach. “NPC” has the feel of a new wave song, if the band was playing under the big top, trapeze artists flying overhead while the lion tamer cracks his whip below. And “E.T. Gnome” is an epic of a track, the perfect way to close this EP. Seven songs in ten minutes, clinging to reality by your fingernails, ready to snap at any moment? Yes! That’s Ghoulies.

THE MISTONS – World Of Convenience (themistons.bandcamp.com)

Wow, just when you think you know what The Mistons are all about, they throw you a curveball. And another. On one LP. The Mistons are a Portland, Oregon based duo, guitar and drums, and this is one helluva great and varied album. It starts out with the title track, an old school punk rock track with garage sensibilities. Distortion abounds in both the guitar and drums, hammering away on just a couple of chords while the vocals urgently sing-shout. It’s an outstanding start, and I think, OK, I know what sort of band The Mistons are. And the next track, “Concentual” is different, but fits in well enough; it’s an old school bluesy garage rock sound. “High Water Style” is less manic, more of a post punk droning feel a la mid-period Wire, but the noisy jangle in the guitar maintains an early punk root. We get some exciting and melodic power pop in “Let’s Go,” and “Transmission” is glam AF. I’m not as enthused by the rock ballad, “Laverne,” which makes me think of arenas with crowds of people, arms held high, swaying back and forth with lighters aflame. But the track that really stands out to me, that’s 180 degrees from everything else on this already varied LP, is “Follow That Creek.” It has the sound of an ancient folk tune, but played on an electric guitar. It’s dark and mysterious, eerie and magical. It’s almost jarring to go back to the garage punk sounds after that, but “Don’t Understand” is a fantastic track in its own right, bouncy and poppy with the right amount of snot and distortion. Goddamn, this is highly recommended.

OH CONDOR – Emergency Psychic (Blind Rage Records, blindragerecords.bandcamp.com)

One usually doesn’t think of Midwestern industrial cities when one thinks of indie rock bands, but Dayton has produced more than its fair share. Guided By Voices, Brainiac, and The Breeders are names that should be familiar, and they all call Dayton home. Oh Condor is another such band, trying to work their way to top of mind like these other bands. Their latest effort to do so is “Emergency Psychic,” a sweeping LP that ranges from dissonant and skittish pop to mathish indie to hazy shoegaze. Some of the tracks are easy and relaxed, while most are frenetic and jittery. “Zero Return” is one in this latter category, not exactly math-rock, but with the uncertain feel of that genre, like you aren’t sure what’s going to happen next. The track has a nervousness anxiety to it that makes it hard to sit still. Juxtaposed against that is “Handwriting Police,” a track that’s fuzzier and more introspective sounding, dare I say dreamy? I enjoy the play of indie rock melody against frenzied guitars in “Clear Coasts,” and the alternation of cacophonous and breezy sections of “Bought and Sold” is cool. It’s pretty hard to pin down Oh Condor, which is usually the mark of a good band.


BELVEDERE – Hindsight Is The Sixth Sense (Thousand Islands Records, www.thousandislandsrecords.com)

Upon first listen of the first track, “Happily Never After,” my thoughts were, “OK, another skate punk band, more than competent, but sounding the same as every other skate punk band out there, so ultimately uninteresting. Boy, was I wrong. After letting the other tracks play out, I realized that these Canadian veterans are not run of the mill or dull at all. And it makes sense; they’ve been around for two and a half decades, honing their craft. They are certainly more than competent, with tight arrangements, blazingly fast speed, and close harmonizing in the vocals. But what’s even better is the creativity in the songwriting, something not normally seen in the skate punk scene, known for its generic sound. For example, “Elephant March,” the second track of the LP, is a singularly unique track, creating a circus-like atmosphere amidst metallic flourishes, but it’s a dark circus. The melody and chord progressions are distinctly not skate punk, though the speed and harmonies are. It’s an interesting combination. A lot of these tracks have more of a pop component, giving them a brighter feel than most skate punk, which tends to have a uniformly dark sound. I like the alternating tempos and time signature angularity of “The Ides,” and “Camera Obscura” has some strong melodic content amidst the raging metallic guitars. “Chromatic” too, is a colorful track (pun intended), with a great pop melody, played briskly and aggressively. “2 Fast 2 Furious” is not just played at supersonic speed, it’s also very tuneful. “Automate” is as speedy, metallic, and aggressive as any skate punk tune, but just listen to that big melody and the amazing progressive-like guitar lines. This is like no skate punk you’ve ever heard before.

DATBLYGU – Pyst (Hate Records, www.haterecords.com)

Datblygu (a Welsh word, pronounce “dat-bluggy” and meaning “development”) were most active in the 80s and early 90s, calling it quits in 1995, but reforming in 2012. “Pyst” was originally released in 1990 and has been long out of print, but is seeing a fresh reissue in 2021. Though recorded in 1990, the record sounds like it could have been written a decade earlier, as massively creative post-punk permeates every song. The vocals are all in Welsh, a musical language in its own right, but it makes it impossible to understand what the songs are about. This, however, doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of the tracks one iota. The opening song, “Benjamin Bore,” uses synths and detuned guitar, with emphatic vocals that seem to be an admonition to the titular character. The song alternates between a new wave dance-beat chorus and more free-form verses. “Mas a Lawr” (Up and Down) has a darkly operatic quality, while “Nofel O'r Hofel” (Motel or Hotel) is mostly spoken word vocals with mistuned piano and subtle percussion and other sound effects throbbing in the background; the latter song has a sad, lonely sound to it. “Dymuniadau Da” (Good Wishes) has the sound of a bluesy torch song mixed with folk-psych, courtesy of the piano and violin used as instrumentation. “Blwyddyn Nesa Efallai Leukaemia” (Next Year Maybe Leukemia) is an oddly titled song of bass dominant synth-based post-punk, with tropical sound effects and deep sighs punctuating the rhythms. “Ugain I Un” (Twenty to One) has moments of synthesized steel pedal guitar country music, but the rhythm guitar’s slightly out of tune quality keeps things just a bit off kilter. “Mwnci Efo Crach” (Monkey with Scratch) is a fun novelty-like track with synthesized jungle noises and a children’s song melody. That crazy dissonance of “Rhawt” (Shut Up), with its free jazz sax and trumpet, is unsettling in the best way. And the closing track, “Nos Da Sgum” (Good Night Scum) sounds like the closing credit love song for a twisted Bond film. Listening to these tracks brings back great memories of one of the most creative periods of music in my lifetime, and this is recommended.

BRAD MARINO – Looking For Trouble (Rum Bar Records, www.rumbarrecords.com)

Power pop is a genre that was popular back in the late 70s and early 80s, and it laid the roots for pop punk, with more melody while maintaining an aggressive bite, While the musical style faded, there are still stalwarts making their mark, and one of those is Brad Marino. On his third full-length LP, he presents a dozen songs that jangle and rock. Notable tracks include the hilarious “Local Show,” which has lyrics like “It’s a local show / Which means nobody will go,” and a spoken section in which a friend of a band member tries to weasel onto the guest list and get discounts on merch. “Something For Nothing” is one of my favorites of the LP, with a fantastic guitar jangle going on, hints of a garage attitude, and loads of bounce. Another favorite, for the same reasons, is “Take Your Time;” the guitar tone is really pleasing, with a mix of 60s garage and British invasion sounds. “Tripwire” is a cinematic instrumental, worthy of a movie soundtrack’s end credits, sounding like something from both a dusty spaghetti western and a surf flick. A couple of the tracks come from last year’s “False Alarm” EP, including that title track, with its beachy rock and roll sound, and “At Night,” a track that mixes surf pop and Ramones core styles, bookended by synthesized flutes. “Fell In Love Again” is a fun one with a lighter touch, too. I think it’s these lighter bouncy songs that I like the best. The harder rocking tracks are fine, but these jangly ones are so nice. If you’re a power pop fan, you can’t go wrong with Brad Marino.

NASIMIYU – P O T I O N S (Figureeight Records, www.figureeightrecords.com)

I had zero expectations or preconceived notions upon listening to this album, as I had never before been exposed to nasimiYu, as she stylizes her name. According to the press info, she’s an activist, a dancer, and a one-woman band. This is her first release after a seven-year hiatus that had been induced by writer’s block. This LP also represents her first completely solo effort, as she played all instruments, provided all the vocals, and produced it herself. And I am enthralled. The ten songs are nothing short of magical. Bright and spacious, with multi-tracked vocals, some with a dance beat, some with Asian-pop fusion melodies, the songs explore a variety of personal topics, including secrets, heartbreak, psychedelic medicine, and self-actualization. The vocal effects on “Watercolor” are amazing, nasimiYu turning her backing vocals into musical instruments, while the lead vocals almost feel like free-form poetry. While some of the songs share some elements with contemporary pop music, the feeling here is more one of sonic art than commercial music. “Immigrant Hustle” has poppy elements, but a strong Asian edge, and the music box-like synths make me smile. The same synths are used on “Practice,” a jazzy soulful song that’s very understated, with sparse instrumentation (though the multi-tracked vocals slowly build through the track). “Parasite” has a jazz bass line, Asian harp embellishments, and ethereal vocals. I love the easy beat and smooth pop feel of “Who Are You,” and the closing track, “Archipelago,” is stunningly gorgeous and enchanting, so understated and pretty. As is the whole LP. I’m a new fan.

PIKEFRUIT – Inflorescence (pikefruit.bandcamp.com)

Pop music, lounge music, and otherworldly ambience are the main ingredients to Pikefruit, a Seattle-based duo. A wide range of synth sounds blend together, creating a dreamscape. There’s a pop dance beat and melodic lines, and torch song lounge style vocal lines (with a bubblegum pop voice) go along for the ride, painting on a musical canvas unlike much of anything else out there. Some of the tracks are more ethereal, like “Perfect Secrecy,” which swirls and envelops you with lush sounds and warm feelings, more than with a distinct melody or beat. “Lullaby” is an aptly named track, sounding like something from the place between wakefulness and sleep. The tempo is languid, the vocals hazy and relaxed, the synths providing a gauzy layer over it all. But there are tracks like “Play Your Game,” which are bouncy and almost dance-inducing, the beat coming through strongly, even as the synths shimmer. Pikefruit is a window into a glimmering alternate reality.

SUZI MOON – Call The Shots (Pirates Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)

Suzi Moon is a veteran of the punk rock scene. She spent years touring with her sister in Civet, and then began fronting her own band, Turbulent Hearts. Now Moon is joining Pirates Press Records and releasing her solo debut, a three-song EP titled, “Call The Shots.” And this is punk fucking rock! Moon’s strong confident vocals remind me a lot of Bad Cop/Bad Cop’s Stacey Dee, also a punk veteran who’s toured the world in various bands. On the first song of this EP, Moon boldly declares, “I’m not man and I don’t give a damn!” It’s a triumphant anthem of equality, similar to songs from Bad Cop/Bad Cop, but here played with garage rock ferocity and a 50s retro rock and roll edge. “Nuthin’ to Me” is a hard rockin’ rager of an anti-love song, and my favorite of the three. Moon’s vocals are powerful and demand attention, while the instrumentals seethe and erupt. Interestingly, on the final song of the trio, “Special Place In Hell,” Moon’s vocals sound more like another of the lead vocalists from Bad Cop, Jennie Cotterill, at least in places, and the gang vocals on the chorus are perfect. Great debut!


DEMONS – Privation (Spartan Records, www.spartanrecords.com)

Opening with the dire sounds of an industrial alarm and a robotic voice announcing, “We’re worn down and we’ve lost hope of recovering,” Demons’ sophomore LP, “Privation,” is brutal and bleak. This is super heavy, grinding, powerful post hardcore and industrial mixed together, with distortion and angularity aplenty. You can hear the desperate anger in the vocals and in the instrumentals. Demons are not fucking around. “Play Acting Virtue” is mostly bass heavy and stompingly harsh, and interjects some distant fuzzed higher pitched guitar sounds that seem like a siren from some science fiction dystopia, and it has a very chilling sound. “Hosanna” is another favorite, with alternating time signatures and a very 90s feel. At the halfway mark there’s a very experimental bridge with interesting found sound recordings layered over each other; it’s very eerie, and the extra distortion on the drums adds a ghostly air. “Slow Burn” is misnamed, because that track blazes fast and intensely. “Full Stop” sounds like a 90s Dischord band would have sound had they suddenly gotten a lot harder and edgier and signed to Amphetamine Reptile. There are a lot of post-emo melodic and structural elements in this sound that remind me a lot of some of those bands. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t normally go in for the heavy stuff, but this is creative, inventive, and unique music, and I heartily recommend it, for those who are fans of heavy music and for those who aren’t.

GRADUATION SPEECH – Private Anxieties (Jetsam-Flotsam, www.jetsam-flotsam.com)

“Private Anxieties” finds Graduation Speech graduating from solo acoustic to full band. The project began as a solo effort from pop punk band Aspiga’s Kevin Day, but over the course of his now three EPs, Day has gradually built on that. The underlying basics of Graduation Speech still consists of Day’s acoustic guitar and vocals, but here we get a full electric guitar, bass, and drums, plus some backing vocals layered over that. The three songs of the EP are, as is the case with Graduation Speech songs, less raucous than Aspiga, more delicate and introspective. I love the jangly indie pop bounce of “Dare To Try,” which opens the EP. There’s a distinct contrast between the bright fuzzed quality of the electric guitar and the simple strumming of the acoustic guitar. The strong backbeat from the drums gives the song quite a spring in its step. “Everything I Need,” though, has a starker sound; the backbeat is still there, but the electric guitar’s reverb-laden wail is more prominent, giving the song a more lonely and desperate sound. So, too, does “Keep Still,” which closes the EP. The vocals are smooth and steady, the electric guitar given an even more prominent role, practically crying out, with layers of distortion and reverb giving it a far off sound, something distant. This is really nice.

HADDA BE – Another Life (Last Night From Glasgow, www.lastnightfromglasgow.com)

Founded a mere three years ago under the name “Foundlings,” UK’s Hadda Be has experienced more than their fair share of turmoil in their short lifetime. A line-up change with the departure of their bass player, having parenthood thrust upon them, the unrest of Brexit, and a global pandemic have conspired to prevent the band from writing, recording, and releasing their debut LP. Even geographical distance (the band is split between hometowns of London and Brighton) couldn’t stop them, and between two national lockdowns, the band managed to get into the studio and lay down these eleven tracks in a minimal amount of time. Finally, a trademark dispute forced a name change, and thus the band was rechristened Hadda Be (the name taken from Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “Hadda Be Playing on the Jukebox”). The band alternates between melancholic indie and bubbly pop, with Amber’s lead vocals shining clearly and beautifully throughout the LP. The title track immediately captivated me; it’s got an energetic feel that teeters between anxiety and effervescence. Lyrics speak to uncertainty, particularly in relationships and how one is perceived by others. “I tread so lightly I can’t move anymore / I can’t think, my hands tied / Driving you way out for the first time / And it covers me in worry, now that’s all I ever know / I bring trouble, someone called me out in another life.” “Apathy,” too, bursts forth with energy as it opens the LP, then settles into something smooth yet driving. And “Fire” brings in some gritty grunge and garage elements to the song. I like the juxtaposition of smooth guitar sounds with the angular melody of “Unknown Places,” Amber’s vocals crooning. “So It Goes” is a lovely delicate song, with acoustic guitars that give the song the sound of an old folk tune. Some of the songs are darker sounding, including “Catch It On The Fall,” which has an ‘80s post punk feel mixed with some moments big dreaminess. “Take It Away” merges nervous pacing in the guitars with effortlessly glossy yet insistent vocals and a sinister melody. “Wait In The Dark” slathers a layer of distortion over the manic song, jittery instrumentals and vocals frenetically belting out from the speakers. The blending of hard and soft elements, the gorgeous beauty of the vocals and the fibrousness of the instrumentals, the poppy bounce and the dark melodies, makes this a great debut.

THE LILLINGTONS – Can Anybody Hear Me (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)

In 2015, David Jones of the pop punk band Enemy You sadly took his own life in 2015. There have been various tributes to him over the years, and the latest is this five-song EP of Enemy You covers from The Lillingtons. The record was made as a benefit, with a portion of the proceeds being donated to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. These songs are proof of Jones’ top-notch songwriting skills, and The Lillingtons’ recordings stay true to the originals. Enemy You may not be a household name, but going back and listening to these songs, it’s clear to see they deserved to be bigger, and what a loss Jones’ death was. Songs included are “Automoton,” “Awake,” and “Hopes and Dreams” from the “Where No One Knows My Name” LP, as well as “72 Hours” and “The Only One” from “Stories Never Told.” These songs still sound fresh today, and The Lillingtons certainly do them justice. These are fast-paced, great poppy punk tunes. There’s a sixth track, too, titled “Untitled Yeebrah,” which has recordings of Jones speaking at the end of a live set and at various other times. It’s a fitting tribute, a great record, and for a worthy cause, so there are three great reasons to get this record.

SAM RUSSO – Refuse To Lose (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)

Sam Russo and Red Scare have dropped a surprise on us in the form of a new 3-song EP. Sam has taken three songs from last year’s excellent LP, “Back To The Party,” and rerecorded them with a full band, including Dan Andriano (of The Alkaline Trio) on bass. Russo’s planned tour and festival appearances in support of the LP were, of course, all cancelled, and it’s a shame because it really is a great record. When I reviewed it last year I commented about how some of the tracks were really raucous pop punk songs, especially the closer, “The Basement.” So here it is, the opening track of the EP as a full band pop punk song. It’s not so much raucous as it is full and lush, the promise the song offered now fully realized. My favorite song of that album, “The Window,” is here, too, and this one is transformed from a soaring acoustic track to a bright boisterous tune with full instrumentation. And I commented on the unusual instrumentation on the LP of “Young Heroes,” using glockenspiel and mandolin to fill out the delicate sound. On the new EP, with the full band treatment, it becomes the most aggressive of the three tracks, with a huge epic sound, and my favorite of the EP. Isn’t it fascinating how a different arrangement can completely transform a song? These are great.

TOTH – You And Me And Everything (Northern Spy Records, www.northernspyrecs.com)

“You And Me And Everything” represents Alex Toth’s second solo album, his second endeavor since the dissolution of both his former band, Rubblebucket, and his longtime relationship with band mate Kalmia Traver. While his solo debut as Toth was written in the wake of these events, “You And Me And Everything” sees him learning to accept things outside of his own control. That sense of calmness is evident throughout the dozen tracks here, which are consistently gorgeous, lush, light pop music. There are touches of jazz and bossa nova injected here and there, bits of folk, and even some new wavy synth pop. It’s all beautiful. A couple of the tracks feature pretty a cappella vocals as an intro. Such is the case of the breezy “Habit Creature,” which uses acoustic guitar, subtle drum machine and some cool synths to create a delicate bossa nova song about the habit of reliance on relationships with others to feel good, and the process of healing yourself from that. “I Might Be” is an interesting mix of light pop, light jazz, and synth pop that examines the difference between love and addiction. “I might be addicted to you / but is that love?” the song asks. The song has sparkling synths, a bouncing booming bass line, those gorgeous harmonized backing vocals, driving piano, and a great jazzy trombone solo. “Butterflies” is a short (38 second) track about crippling anxiety (butterflies in my stomach all the time). It’s got a feeling of being disoriented and out of sorts, like someone reeling in a stupor. I love the sensation of this song. “Turnaround” (Cocaine Song)” is lovely and lush, mixing pop, folk jangle, a backdrop of wind instruments, and a jazzy trumpet solo. The song recounts one of the lowest points of Toth’s life and how this gave him the drive to turn his life around. He sings of being at a bar, already stumbling drunk, doing a line of coke with someone he barely knew, then getting into a taxi to go to his aunt’s funeral where he was supposed to play “Ave Maria” on the trumpet. Instead, he passed out. The story of that fateful day is laid bare, and Toth’s courage in his honesty is commendable. As bleak as a lot of the songs may seem, Toth has a sense of humor, and it shows on “Guitars Are Better Than Synthesizers for Writing Through Hard Times.” “I feel weird / My ex just broke up with the person they broke up with me for / Three years later and at the same time as I’m falling in love / The breakup album I made about her isn’t even out yet / This makes me sadder than I ever could have imagined.” The mix of acoustic guitar and synths in the track adds to the humor. On the closing track, “The Driving,” Toth comes to a realization: “Why do I need a person right next to me to help me believe?” The chorus highlights the struggle between the desire to have a relationship and the reasons for it. “I don’t know what my intentions are / I don’t know why I am trying so hard / What the fuck am I supposed to do without someone like you? / My heart still broken and I let the pain inside do the driving.” The instrumentals are understated, yet also lush, and the song has a grandness that’s perfect for ending an album. The music on this LP may be light, but the emotions are heavy. The combination is compelling.


ART D’ECCO – In Standard Definition (Paper Bag Records, www.paperbagrecords.com)

Art Deco was a flamboyant style of art and design in the 1920s and 1930s. Art D’Ecco is an artist making flamboyant music reminiscent of the heyday of David Bowie and similar acts. Heavy on the synths, heavy on the glam, and heavy on the fabulous are the main ingredients in the dozen songs on offer. They’re full of pop, full of joy, and full of splendor. Besides Bowie, I’m reminded of the dazzling synth pop of the 80s new wave made by Bill Nelson (of Be Bop Deluxe fame). “Bird of Prey” is a particular favorite, with its emphatic “oh-ohs,” the bright synths, warbling tenor vocals, and the strong bouncing beat. “I Am The Dance Floor” is another favorite, for many of the same reasons. I mean, I’m not one to like dance music, but this stuff is great! It’s super creative in the choice of synth tones, injecting some flute sounds and horns, and in the use of various timbres of percussion. “Channel 7 (Pilot Season)” and “Channel 11 (Reruns)” are glorious instrumentals that sound like liturgical music from a science fiction program of the 1970s. And the closing track, “I Remember,” is a lovely waltz with acoustic guitar, piano, and synths that’s delicate and captivating. What a fun and lovely record!

DEVON KAY AND THE SOLUTIONS – Liver. (devonkayandthesolutions. bandcamp.com)

It’s time for the April installment of DK&TS’s “album of singles!” Like last month’s “Parchment and Petroleum,” “Liver.” is bouncier and poppier than a lot of recent output from the band. But unlike last month’s track, which had a very chorale-like quality, this one has elements of funkiness and ska punk mixed together. It’s bright and bouncy, and it’s got a short jazzy trombone solo. I mean, what more can you ask for? The joy shines through.

THE DOPAMINES – Hard Pass: Singles/Rarities 2006-2020 (Rad Girlfriend Records, www.radgirlfriendrecords.com)

Since forming in 2006, The Dopamines have been one of the defining forces in Midwestern pop punk music. Normally on a new record with this sort of sound I’d comment on how it’s fun and well done, but it’s not genre defining or won’t break new ground. But in this case, The Dopamines did define a genre and did break new ground. Rad Girlfriend Records (whose boss, Josh Goldman became the second guitarist for The Dopamines in 2013) has collected together twenty-seven songs previously released on long out-of print singles, splits, or compilations. This represents over an hour’s worth of Dopamines material that you should have bought when it came out, but you were too stupid or too broke. Good for you, because now you can get this all in one place instead of hunting everything down. Not only does this release present a comprehensive collection of all the 7”ers, splits, comps, covers, etc., it also includes some previously unreleased material, making this a must-have for anyone who calls themselves a fan of pop punk. One highlight is the band’s cover of Huey Lewis and the News’ ”Power of Love,” a version that hardly shares anything with the original. It’s more raw, more frantic, harder and edgier (well, it’s not hard to be edgier than Huey Lewis). There’s an acoustic version of “The King of Swilling Powers Part I” from the LP “Tales of Interest,” which puts a completely different spin on the song. Another acoustic song present is “10 Stories,” originally from the album “Vices,” but rendered as an acoustic track for a benefit compilation. “Douglas Bubbletrousers,” from the split with Dear Landlord, is another highlight; it’s a song that uses harmonized vocals, a simple melody, and lots of power to great effect. The social conscience of The Dopamines comes through on “Try THIS Kids at Home!” from a split with Be My Doppleganger. “You know it's time to leave this place / When you go to bed sober and you wake up shit-faced / The empty bottles won't ease your pain.” The Anxiety pair of tracks, “Jon Has Anxiety” and “Ryan Has Anxiety” are classics. Hell, all of these are! Listening to this record sounds so much like Awesome Fest from days of yore and makes me pine for mass gatherings of friends from all over the country. I don’t know whether to laugh with joy or cry in anguish. And listening to this record is sure to conjure strong emotions from any pop punk fan.

ELEVENTH DREAM DAY – Since Grazed (Comedy Minus One, www.comedyminusone.com)

Though I no longer live there, I’m from Chicago, and lived there most of my life. So, naturally, I was familiar with Eleventh Dream Day, and bought their self-titled debut EP when it came out in 1987. And, while Eleventh Dream Day was never a fast and loud punk band, they had garage and power pop leanings that appealed to me. Their breakthrough debut LP, “Prairie School Freakout,” was a tour de force, full of easy edginess and nonchalant raucousness, attracting the attention of critics and major labels, alike. I lost track of the band after that, and apparently after several years with Atlantic, they were dropped (like most of the indie bands signed in the 90s). I see they proceeded to release a series of LPs, typically every few years. But they fell silent after 2015’s “Works For Tomorrow.” Until now. Without any fanfare or advanced warning, Eleventh Dream Day surprised the world with “Since Grazed,” a double LP with a full hour of music. It sees them take the “easy” and “relaxed” part of their sound several steps forward, but they’ve left the garage and power pop leanings behind in the dust. Songs like “Just Got Home (in Time to Say Goodbye)” and “Tyrian Purple” are the indie equivalent to adult contemporary: light, slow, relaxed music to unwind to with a glass of wine. The latter has strings and vocal chorale, too, bringing back memories of orchestral versions of pop tunes by the likes of 101 Strings or Percy Faith. “Nothing’s Ever Lost,” too, is just too soft and calm. Some of the songs feel kind of like Neil Young songs, but smoother and easier. Like “Look Out Below;” its melody and vocals remind me of the 70s songwriter, but this track has strings and harmonized backing vocals. Lest you think the entire LP is the rock generation’s version of “elevator music,” “Cracks in My Smile” has a nice chugging feel, with hints of Americana twang underneath. It lopes along, aided by the jangle of an acoustic guitar. “A Case to Carry On” is the closest to the Eleventh Dream Day that I recall from decades ago. The guitars mix hardness, jangle, and a droning quality, creating a song that has that same easy edginess that attracted me in the first place. “Yves Klein Blues,” too, has just enough noisiness in the guitar and enough spring in the step of the tempo to rekindle the flame of Eleventh Dream Day past. But for me, it’s not enough. The album is too long and too sedate for my tastes, and it makes me lament for the past.

HARKER – Axiom (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)

Wow, just…wow. I reviewed an LP from Harker a few years ago (“No Discordance”) and while it was fine, it seemed somewhat generic, similar to a lot of other bands, and all the songs were too much alike. Fast forward to 2021, and I can hardly believe this is the same band! These songs are hardly generic; they’re harder, edgier, more frantic and chaotic in many cases. There’s more variety, and the melodic portions are even stronger, with a nod to progressive rock. The album starts with “The Beast Must Die,” the opening of which is deeply sinister sounding, with hushed evil sounds, and someone speaking words that are hard to make out. When the full band comes in, it’s tense, blending edgy post-hardcore and prog-rock sounds in a pretty unique way. You can hear this even more strongly in “Sigh of Crows,” which demonstrates a lot of creativity in the songwriting and in the arranging; it’s got a truly epic feel and huge dynamic range in under three minutes. And is that a trumpet I hear? I like the dissonant post-hardcore of “Moriah,” with odd chords and changing meters that up the tension. It’s one of the standout tracks of the album. Daisychain uses a mixture of strange guitar noises and a smooth melody to create a distinct sound; the juxtaposition of pretty harmonized vocals against the cacophonous background is something out of the ordinary, and done quite well. The closing track, “Antenna,” is truly brutal, both dissonant and melodic, a sweeping epic of a track that has enormous range. Yeah, I can hardly believe this is the same band. They’ve gone from just OK to outstanding with this new LP.

THE VENOMOUS PINKS – Based On A True Story (www.thevenomouspinks.com)

Arizona’s Venomous Pinks ran into the same problem a lot of bands did last year: the pandemic shot down any plans they may have had. This four-song EP was recorded pre-pandemic, mid-tour, and is culled from their Bridge City Sessions. They had limited time to record, having to rush across town for a show they were booked to play, and the Bridge City crew were certain they would only have time for a few songs. They hadn’t worked with The Venomous Pinks before, though. The three-piece proceeded to rip through their entire set in one take, the band’s raw fury captured perfectly. Yes, three-piece. You won’t believe it, though, because the trio’s sound is power-packed and immensely energetic. Listen to “I Want You,” the first song of the EP. Listen to the raw power of a rock and roll trio. Listen to “Todos Unidos” (“Everyone Together”); listen to the blazing speed and the unbridled hardcore intensity. Listen to the fast and loud yet melodic pop punk of “I Really Don’t Care” and be amazed. And listen to “Hold On” and experience bouncy fun. This EP may have been delayed by the pandemic, but damn, it was worth waiting for!

WILD POWWERS – What You Wanted (Nadine Records, www.nadinerecords.com)

Wild Powwers is a trio from Seattle, and though you can hear the influences of their home scene’s glory days, they aren’t easily categorized as a grunge band. Wild Powwers are more than that, as is evidenced by the varied sounds of this new LP. Even when they do get grungy, the ten songs here are quite melodic. Melodic, yet tough. The opening track, “…Sucks,” is about the grungiest they get. The rumbling bass, roaring guitars, and searing vocals combine into a singularly fiery track. The verses are screamed in a way that will pierce your soul, while the chorus is melodic and brawny. As soon as I thought I knew what sort of album this was going to be, “Bone Throw” began, and it’s got a pretty melody with intertwined vocals, while the instrumental arrangement is both tough and jangly. If there’s anything that ties the songs of this album together, that’s it: they sound melodic and jangly while still maintaining a sense of powerful resoluteness. “Decades” does get lighter and smoother, those harmonized vocals gliding placidly above the instrumentals, which still maintain their sense of grit. “Chrome” and “Tricky” bring some dream pop atmosphere into the mix, the latter with bits of psych, too. This blend of different styles of music, with pop and grunge dominating, makes this a compelling listen.

VARIOUS – Get Stoked! Volume 2 (Say-10 Records and Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

Say-10 is back with the next installment of Get Stoked! It’s their series of lathe cut bundles to give people hope and joy in these dark pandemic times, some new music to get stoked for. The volume 2 bundle includes lathe cuts from Bad Idols, Shotclock, and Xed Out. And I can confirm, the eight songs here will definitely get you stoked. Bad Idols offer up four tracks. “Bad Ideas” is short, speedy raw pop punk in the Awesome Fest sort of vein, “Lucas” is a brief ska punk sojourn, “Peace Frog” is quality mid-tempo pop punk, and “(Treat Yo Self to Some) Night Terrors” brings back the speed and reminds me a little bit of the late band, Rumspringer. Shotclock offers two tracks, “With Your Ghost” and “We Are Wild Stallions.” These songs are still pop punk, but they’re bigger and grander, more emotionally charged and more melodic. And the pair from Xed Out are even bigger. With a name like Xed Out I expected hardcore, but this is super melodic stuff, bordering on alternative rock sounds. Three lathe cuts in the bundle, three different bands, three different sounds, all great. Get stoked, indeed!



ASSERTION – Intermission (Spartan Records, www.spartanrecords.com)

Veteran of the Pacific Northwest music scene, William Goldsmith, has a new band. A decade after walking away from his music career, the founding member of both Sunny Day Real Estate and The Foo Fighters is back, and “Intermission” represents the new band’s debut. It’s a somewhat uneven debut, at that, though, with some songs sounding expansive and emotional, others thin and unexciting. The best songs seem to be mostly in the front half of the LP, with “Down Into The Depths,” the track that opens the LP, being a driving song, the rumbling bass bringing up memories of 90s grunge while the chorus has an almost dream-like quality, with a thick guitar tone and fuzzed bass. “The Lamb To The Slaughter Pulls A Knife” is a favorite, too, for its enormous sound that belies the size of the trio, alternating with quieter parts that are more introspective. The waltz time “Defeated,” too, has a bigger sound than the size of the band would suggest, and the vocals on this one are intense and pleading. I enjoy “This Lonely Choir” for the way it alternates between big and intimate sounds, and especially for its melodious chorus, with fierce vocals and buzzy guitars. Some of the songs just don’t work quite as well, however. “This Dream Does Not Work” is, I guess, aptly titled. It’s much more thinly arranged and doesn’t have the same sense of going anywhere as some of the other tracks; it just sort of idles. “Deeper In The Shallow,” too, is pretty sparsely arranged through most of the track, and just doesn’t do much for me. “Supervised Suffering” doesn’t fit with the rest of the album, sounding much smoother in several sections, only getting noisy in a couple parts. And the closing track, “Set Fire,” which should be blazing hot, leaves me cold. It’s a soft ballad with a hollow feel. This one’s a mixed bag.

CRICKETBOWS – Raised On Rock And Roll (cricketbows.bandcamp.com)

Cricketbow didn’t originally plan to release this album this way. The plan had been to release a movie soundtrack for the independent sci-fi film, “The Spherical.” For a variety of reasons, that film was put on hold, and in place of the grand plan, a slimmed down LP was prepared. The Dayton, Ohio band recorded these eight tracks in Dayton, Kentucky, and elements of the previous concept made their way into this LP, which has been released a single per week since January. It’s quite diverse in its sounds, ranging from bright and light rock and roll to hard rock, from psych rock and glam to subtle goth rock. There’s pastoral Americana with twangy steel guitar and equally twangy vocals. One of the highlights for me, “Saccharine Sweet,” is a song that feels ready-made for a stage production. “Gracious Peasant” is almost metallic and will bring you back to the acid rock days of the 1970s. “Ride or Die” begins very hymn-like, with a huge vocal choir and organ, like a sacred song, praising the wonderful qualities of a woman: “She’s ride or die, she gets me high / She does not lie, she’ll tell you right” and “Yes, you can say she turns me on.” Halfway through the hymn gives way to a hard rock tune with space-rock elements. And I adore “Ohio Valley Springtime,” which is mainly Americana, but has a pretty flute solo in the middle that completely changes the character of the song and you really get the feeling of an Ohio valley in the springtime. I’ve said it many times, but variety really makes a record successful, and it certainly does so here.

DIVIDED HEAVEN – In My Life (dividedheaven.bandcamp.com)

Divided Heaven, the sometimes solo, sometimes full-band project of singer-songwriter Jeff Berman, has been spending the pandemic recording and releasing singles, like many musicians facing the limitations of COVID closures and restrictions. This latest release is a benefit, with “all proceeds from the sales and streaming being donated to Lancaster Stands Up, a grassroots organization dedicated to building a better, safer, and more equitable community” in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Berman’s adopted hometown. And the single, this time out, is a cover of a band many consider taboo to cover: The Beatles. Why mess with classic perfection? “I went for it and put my best effort into ‘In My Life,’ for my own comfort and to add some beauty to these dark times,” Berman says. And, indeed, his version is reasonably true to the original, with overdubbed vocals providing the harmonies. Acoustic guitar takes the lead, while electric guitar fills in with atmospherics until getting its turn at the fore with a gorgeously understated solo. Some may consider it heresy to cover The Fab Four, but Divided Heaven does an excellent job with the song, like it was made for Berman’s brand of touching, emotional singing.

THE HIGH TIMES – Heat (Say-10 Records & Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

When I think of a skateboard company putting out records, I normally think of music that’s harder and faster. You know, skate punk. Say-10 has long shunned such stereotypes, opting instead to put out a variety of music that they just like. The High Times are a band that play sunny-sounding pop punk. The songs are mostly mid-tempo, and feature the warmth of an organ in the arrangements. There are whoa-ohs aplenty, and the music is made for jumping around and having fun. Songs cover topics such as living in the moment on one’s own terms (“Nothing Matters”), memories of good times (“Sometimes”), Living life on the edge (“Trouble Again”), and more. “Nothing Matters” is a highlight, with a great bouncy melody and emphatic vocals. And while those lead vocals are great throughout the LP, the vocals in the verses on the closing track, “Figure Out Impossible,” are outstanding. They’re tuneful and powerful, giving the song the feel of a modern standard. The verses have a grander feel, played in waltz time, with more raucous choruses in 4-4 time. While The High Times isn’t going to be breaking any new ground here, the record is very enjoyable.

KNEELING IN PISS – Types of Cults (Anyway Records, www.anyway-records.com)

Back with the third installment in a series of EPs, Columbus, Ohio’s Kneeling In Piss are a band whose name will deceive you. They aren’t crust punk! On the band’s last installment they were jangly nerdy indie pop, heavy on the synths. This time out sees them get a little more off kilter, eschewing the synths for straight guitar, bass, and drums or acoustic guitar, with repetitive melodic lines and lots of spoken lyrics. There’s a hypnotic quality to the four songs, starting with “I Am A Patsy!” The strong backbeat, lo-fi recording, and expository spoken vocals are mesmerizing, and when the guitars get dissonant toward the end, the tension is palpable. “I Love My Echo Chamber” has an almost mechanical quality to the instrumentals, particularly in the bass, drums, and rhythm guitar. “Return, Return + Types of Cults” seems a throwback to late 70s and early 80s post punk, with droning repetition, the only embellishment coming from the lead guitar. It’s kind of soothing, until the guitars again rebel with some dissonance, and things get speedier and more raucous toward the end of the track. “WWIII (cont.)” closes the EP with some Syd Barrett style psych-folk. Even though it’s acoustic and somewhat psychedelic, the trance-inducing repetition is still there, and the synths finally make a cameo appearance. This EP has somewhat of a different sound than the previous one, “Music for Peasants,” and as much as I liked that one, I think I like this one even more.

OH THE HUMANITY (Hellminded Records, www.hellmindedrecords.com)

Oh the Humanity, formed back in 2012, are a group of friends from diverse musical backgrounds, and you can hear it in the music. Metal, punk, and hardcore merge together into a style of music that’s equal measures of crunch, virtuosity, and melody. If you’re a fan of skate punk and melodic hardcore, buckle your seatbelts. Oh the Humanity are proficient at their craft, with tight playing, demonstrating mastery over their instruments. And while the genre is one that some may consider bromidic, there’s little doubt that when played by competent hands, it can be exciting to listen to. The eleven songs on this self-titled LP are played with passion, and unlike many bands of the genre, Oh the Humanity doesn’t dish up a record full of one song played over and over; there’s enough variety here to keep things interesting. For example, “Wit’s End” is a rager, heavy on the metallic crunch and hardcore speed. Immediately after that is “Never Worse,” a mid-tempo song that’s quieter and more melodic, while “Gainesville” is appropriately poppy with big gang vocals. Recommended for fans of Propagandhi, A Wilhelm Scream, and similar bands.

RICKY – Miss You (Paper Street Cuts, www.paperstreetcuts.com)

Ricky, if you’ve been unaware, is Ricky Schmidt, of Western Settings and Hey, Chels. Recording as Ricky is his solo outlet for brighter pop songs than what he does with Western Settings, though unlike his debut LP, this lathe cut two-song single is more stripped down and not a full-band outing. He had percussionist Shane Hendry come down to San Diego, and the two of them set up in Ricky’s living room and recorded these two tracks. They had their friend Scott Goodrich handle cleaning up the recordings and mixing in a back and forth effort. The A-side is a pandemic lament about not just boredom, but missing friends and having imaginary conversations with them. Through the somewhat shiny melody, you can hear the synthesized sounds of wind blowing through a desolate landscape, as Ricky sings about feeling lost and alone. The B-side is “Black Room,” is quiet and less chaotic, blending the feelings of cowboy music and crooning standards. Acoustic guitar and subtle percussion provide a galloping beat for Ricky’s smooth vocal stylings. There’s even a section of whistling, just like lots of old cowboy songs. It’s fascinating how this is recognizable as one of Schmidt’s songs, yet it’s so different from anything he’s recorded before.


THE BLIPS (Cornelius Chapel Records, www.corneliuschapelrecords.com)

The Blips, a band of multiple front men from other bands, was formed by Will Stewart of Birmingham, Alabama’s Timber. He contacted a group of friends and collaborators about getting together to write and record. The result is an album full of rock and roll, power-pop, and countrified blues-rock. Some of the songs are twangy, like the opener, “Inside Out,” which mixes power pop, bits of country, and some plain ol’ rock and roll. I think the melodies are mostly power pop, but it’s the embellishments that give the songs the country/blues/bar band rock sound. This is pretty clear on “Walking Home,” which has a nice indie melody and rhythm guitar sound, but the lead guitar injects a ton of twang and down-home rock into the mix; to my ears it’s to the detriment of the song. I’m a sucker for good indie, but not so much country or blues-rock. There’s a “sequel” of “Wild Thing,” called “Wild Thing II,” a reimagining of the classic song. It has the general feel of the original, but with new lyrics and some other alterations. I have to ask, “why?” While most of the songs are, honestly, nothing special outside of what you might hear from a bar band (though these are originals, rather than covers), not all is worthless. “Same Do” is interesting, moving between garage power pop and something a little more like experimental post punk. “Patty’s Patio” is pretty solid power pop with some nice guitar jangle. But overall, this didn’t do much for me.

CHASER – Dreamers (Thousand Islands Records, www.thousandislandsrecords.com)

SoCal punk band Chaser holds true to the OC sound, with plenty of speedy skate punk, Bad Religion influences, multipart harmonies, and plenty of whoa-ohs. The musicianship is top-notch, with tight arrangements and close harmonies. I love “Good Times,” a tune with a great poppy melody played at breakneck pace. The bass lines on this one are unreal, and given a prominent place in the mix. “Break the Chain,” likewise, is played impossibly fast, and the gang vocals are fun. Some of the slower tracks, like “A New Direction,” are very Bad Religion-like with lots of vocal harmonies, a middling tempo, and a strong backbeat. But others are just great pop punk, like the title track, which is bouncy and crunchy without falling into the rut of “dark” sounding OC skate punk. If you’re a skate punk and/or Bad Religion fan, you can’t go wrong with Chaser, and you won’t be disappointed. The sound can be pretty homogenous, true, but Chaser execute it expertly.

COME CLOSER – Pretty Garbage (Pirate’s Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)

When I play a record from Pirates Press, I have certain expectations: that I’ll be listening to Oi or street punk. You know, fun music to listen to with a group of your best mates, all drinking and singing along. What I don’t expect is jangly indie rock that borders on pop punk. But that’s what we’ve got here in Come Closer. When I listen to a J Wang band, I expect to hear big beer soaked melodies. What I don’t expect is…well, you get the picture. The most unlikely pairing of J Wang, best known for his stints in Dan Padilla and Shallow Cuts, with Pirates Press Records, America’s premier Oi and Street Punk label, is the most unexpected and pleasant surprise so far of 2021. True to his DIY ethic, Wang recorded most of this album in the back room of his house, recruiting fellow Dan Padilla alum and Tiltwheel honcho Davey Quinn, and Chris Prescott, of Pinback, No Knife, and Rocket From The Crypt, to help with filing out the band and with the engineering. Between the blast of the train whistle that begins the album, and the sound of the train disappearing into the distance at the end, are eleven songs of lush indie rock, catchy melodies, and quiet touching moments. “Mayday” is a favorite, with its strong beat, jangly guitars, and melodic vocal line that hops around. I like the combination of clean pop guitar and Americana twang in “Arms Up.” “Bad Skin” cranks up the fuzz and reverb creating something that’s poppy, but also dreamy. “Never Say Goodnight” might be the closest thing to what I normally expect to hear from J Wang; it’s a bigger song than many of the others, closer to that combination of pop punk and Americana that I remember from Dan Padilla. “Just The Way You Are” starts out with lovely acoustic guitar and quiet introspection, then picks up to become a nicely understated pop tune. Pretty much every song on here is a gem. Unexpected pairings sometimes produce great results, and it certainly does here. Solid.

ELEPHANT MICAH – Vague Tidings (Western Vinyl, www.westernvinyl.com)

While this is certainly not typical Jersey Beat sort of music, I’m going to highly recommend checking out this gorgeous new record from Elephant Micah. Elephant Micah is primarily the work of Joe O’Connell, and on this record he sings and plays guitar and piano. He’s joined by Matt O’Connell, playing drums and other quiet subtle percussion. Libby Rodenbough plays violin and provides backing vocals, and Matt Douglas plays various wind instruments. The songs are quiet and understated, many with a distinct folksy feel. Some tracks have an almost tribal feel, too. According to the notes, the inspiration for the songs on “Vague Tidings” came from a DIY tour O’Connell did in Alaska a decade ago, with many stops off the beaten path. He often sings about interactions with the natural world, and in these songs he places these encounters in Alaska and the American West. The opening track, “Glacier Advisors,” blends a quietly jangling guitar, subtle drones from the violin and what I think is a bass clarinet, an understated tribal drum, flute, and gentle piano, all as backdrop for O’Connell’s breathy, pleading vocals. It’s breathtaking in its beauty, and as the song evolves, the vocals and instrumentals become more emphatic, Rodenbough joining in on some of the vocals, and a saxophone providing a flourish of an ending. “Pipe Diversions / Bored Auroras” has a huge sound, the plucked guitar’s notes bending and swaying, tons of reverb giving it a feeling of vastness. Violin harmonics add to the atmosphere, as do the various percussion instruments and the bass notes of the piano played through massive reverb. The whole thing is played in 6/8 time, and has an ethereal otherworldly feel. Flute harmonics do that job, too, in the title track, which closes the LP. The melody has the old timey feel of a small rural town, but with the reverb, the quietly dragging tempo, and the flute, it feels like it’s a picture seen through a gauzy filter, pulled out of time and a bit distorted. It’s solemn and sad, too, like seeing somber events of the distant past. This record is magical.

THE LIVING PINS – Freaky Little Monster Children (www.livingpins.com)

Talk about taking your time with a new record! This is The Living Pins’ first release since their debut in 1996! The Austin band recorded the four songs on this EP mostly on weekends during the pandemic lockdown, and the songs all have somewhat different feels. “Raven” is 70s rock and roll with a hint of funkiness, while “Downtown” is mildly psychedelic pop music. Modulating synths provide a backdrop of dreaminess beneath repeating melodic lines and throbbing rhythms. “Jaguar” tries to get down with some rockin’ guitar, but the breezy indie-pop parts with harmonized vocals are the better aspect. And “Fish and Beads” is nice indie-pop with elements of pysch underneath, a throbbing bass line, and a sense of floating in the vocals. As the song comes to a close, the guitars get a little edgy and dissonant. Will it be another 25 years until the next Living Pins record? Let’s hope not.

LAPÊCHE – Blood in the Water (New Granada Records, www.newgranada.com)

Lapêche play music that’s part grunge, part pop, and part dream-pop. The music is somewhat heavy, but it’s also got a floating dream-like quality. And the songs’ melodies have a pop sensibility. For example, “Finally Trying” has big and grungy guitars, but the vocals are dreamy pop. Many of the songs have a hypnotic droning quality to them, like “Cool Job,” which throbs easily through most of the track, the vocals casting a spell – until halfway through the track when everything gets big and covered with grunge for a time. I like the rapturous quality of “Oliver,” a track that throbs with intensity. It’s fascinating how this can be both heavy and so mesmerizing at the same time. “Metric” reminds me a tiny bit of Jawbox, starting in waltz time, then moving to what feels like 6/8 time. The time signature keeps shifting, but this isn’t math rock, it flows too smoothly for that. “Salt and Sweet” is a gorgeous ballad that adds strings to the mix. I’m a sucker for rock and roll cello. Speaking of which, “B. Gentle” may be my favorite track of the album. It’s got a busy drum beat and bass, while dreamy guitars and ethereal vocals drift through it all. And the strings come back in a big way, giving this tune a lush sound. The ending, with a small chamber orchestra playing a lovely, lonely melody, is divine. There’s a lot in here that will sound familiar, but there aren’t many bands that sound quite like this. I like it.

THE ROUTES – Mesmerized (Action Weekend Records, actionweekend.bandcamp.com/Bickerton Records, www.bickertonrecords.com)

This eighth LP from the Japanese band fronted by Scotsman Chris Jack is very aptly titled. True to form, the ten songs are unmistakably garage rock and roll, but some of them are quite hypnotic, with a strong psych influence, as well. “Broken Goods” is played at a slower pace, but with a strong heavy beat. There’s a pretty evident early self-effacing punk attitude on this track, singing “I’m no good,” and how “I’m broken goods.” “Society,” too, has a slower tempo and a drone-like feel, creating a trance-inducing effect. “Used To” and “Blink of an Eye” have a similar effect. There are also pretty rocking and hopping garage rock tracks, like “ Two Steps Ahead,” and “The World’s At Fault,” fast paced and manic. Oddly enough, the title track is not mesmerizing; it’s British invasion pop music, with a strong backbeat and lovely melody. If you’re a fan of garage rock, you’ll enjoy this.

LUNG / SKRT – Split LP (Romanus Records, www.romanusrecords.com)

What a unique split, and one that’s a great listen! Lung, out of Cincinnati, Ohio, consists of classically trained opera singer Kate Wakefield and Daisy Caplan of Foxy Shazam. The resulting music is fascinating, with both heavenly and evil vocals and powerful grunge emanating from the cello. The tracks are amazing post-grunge mixed with a dose of the avant garde. “Wall” is probably my favorite of their tracks; it’s loaded with tension, and the vocals, partly sung, partly spoken, partly shouted, are intense – especially when that operatic training is put to good use. “What Are You Asking For” begins with breathy vocals and a drone on the cello, then gets weird, in the best way; it’s intense in a different way from “Wall.” Skrt is from Dayton, Ohio, and they sound much bigger than the trio they are. They take the basics of 90s post-punk and then add a heavy dose of art-punk to create exciting energetic songs. There’s some jazziness and some experimentalism that go into these tracks, too. “Snowsuit For The Apocalypse” is some amazing indie that sounds like taking the indie pop of Washington, D.C.’s Tsunami and making it harder and edgier, and it’s a great track. But it’s the breezy jazz mixed with intense punk that really kicks me in the ass. Like “Trailer Trapeze, with its easy melody and gorgeous jazzy vocals that are pumped up on steroids. “Black Adderall” has an easy lope and melodic line that’s at times angular, and other times light and lithe, like someone with attention deficit disorder (and the play on the Rowan Atkinson comedy “Black Adder” is fun). “Amigone” is the most artsy track out of all them, with a distorted melody playing on a loop, indistinct voices conversing. This is one of the best splits I’ve heard in awhile.


THE ARMOIRES – Incognito (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)

Well, April Fool’s Day came. And the cat’s out of the bag. Big Stir bosses Christina and Rex have been releasing a series of singles over the last several months by mysterious “new” bands – but actually they’ve all been recordings from The Armoires, Christina and Rex’s own band. Part of the reason the ruse was able to work so well is that the band has been experimenting with songs of various styles and genres. And now, unmasked, The Armoires present a new double-length LP that ranges widely, from pop to folk, from rock to country, with a mix of covers and originals. Let’s first talk about some of the covers. The opening track takes John Cale’s very orchestral and theatrical “Paris 1919” and turns it into a lovely Brit-pop tune with a mod feel. There’s a cover of XTC’s “Senses Working Overtime,” which eschews both the more experimental aspects of the original and the Brit-pop jangle to present a more Americanized pop version. An interesting touch is the addition of violin and a very “rock” guitar. The result is a more evenly textured song, less disjointed than the original, though that’s one of the things that makes the original so memorable. This one came out as a single shortly before Christmas under the alias “Yes It Is!” Andy Gibb’s ballad, “Words and Music,” is here, but The Armoires (previously as “Tina and the Tiny Potatoes,” on New Year’s Day), turn it into a lusher, more upbeat tune, giving it a hint of a 70s disco beat, perhaps as an homage to the prominence of Gibb and his older brothers in the disco era. Notable originals include “(Just Can't See) The Attraction,” an indie pop tune with harmonized vocals and competing violins that really add dimension to the song. This was released under the alias “October Surprise” last fall, but, nope, it’s The Armoires! “Bagfoot Run” is something that could have come from the old NPR radio program “A Prairie Home Companion,” because it’s just a good old folksy song, with banjo, fiddle, guitar, piano and drums. Though the music sounds like that, the lyrics would never have gotten past the radio censors; it’s about a kid trying to run away from a crappy little town where there was nothing to do but drugs. He loses his shoes along the way and puts bags on his feet because they get cold and start to bleed. I love the gentle ballad, “Homebound,” a song about being on the road with everything you own, moving across country while everyone is stuck inside their homes because of the pandemic. If it sounds eerily familiar, it may be because it was released for Thanksgiving under the alias “The Chessie System.” “Great Distances” isn’t a cover of the Gospel Swamps song just released in March, it was always The Armoires, and it may be my favorite song of the LP, with a jazzy mod guitar tone and a gentle indie pop feel. At over an hour long, it may be a little too much, but variety is the spice of life, they say, and you certainly get it here!

DEVILS TEETH – La Leggenda di Chong Li (Triple Eye Industries, www.tripleeyeindustries.com)

Devils Teeth describe this album as a “spaghetti western garage rock operetta inspired by the character Chong Li from the martial arts film, “Bloodsport.” And I can see that. The music is certainly cinematic, beginning with the lounge-like overture, “She Speaks to Coyotes.” With an easy listening bossa nova beat, saxophone, harp, vibraphone, and calming backing vocals, the elevator music vibe is strong. The recording site was a barn turned art-space, and you can feel the size and emptiness of the room. It adds a sense of uncertainty into the Muzak feel. This transitions into “Pt. 1 – Chong Li,” a great garage surf track that introduces our main character. A lonely guitar solo starts the track, and you can picture Chong Li, coming into town, the streets empty. Eventually the song picks up with a classic surf beat and the rest of the band comes in, with vocals singing the praises of our hero. “Psychopath” is a quiet, eerie track that seems to introduce the villain of this piece. You can imagine someone slinking around in dark shadows, plotting and scheming against our hero. You can hear the track rise toward the end, as the plan comes together, and suddenly we’re into “Ride of the Devils Teeth,” and we hear the assembled gang as they rampage through the town, wreaking havoc. A dark garage surf melody plays, the guitar strumming madly and a saxophone wailing quietly. Their plan is apparently a success, as the next track, “Pt. II – Death of Chong Li,” has a funereal quality to it. You can hear the sadness, a trumpet adding to the morose feeling. Partway through the track, the saxophone gently weeps, and we hear the sounds of a woman sobbing, perhaps Chong Li’s wife. The last portion of the track builds the melody more strongly, hinting at a sense of hope that not is all lost. That hope is not wasted, as the next track is a raucous one titled, “Pt. III – Son of Chong Li.” You can hear the rage and need for vengeance and justice in this one. “Pt. IV – Shadows of Chong Li” brings back the lounge mix, but this time it’s stronger, less hollow. Balance has been restored, as the end credits roll. This isn’t necessarily the sort of record I would seek out on my own, but it’s one of the perks of doing these reviews that I get turned onto interesting and unique music like this.

THE SUCK – Boris Sprinkler (Mom’s Basement Records, momsbasementrecords.bigcartel.com)

The SUCK doesn’t suck. They’re not original or unique, playing raucous Ramones-core songs, but they are a helluva lot of fun and quite talented. The Suck are a mysterious band from points unknown, but if you’re in the scene, they apparently know you! 90s pop punk icons are skewered, including Reverend Norb, of Boris The Sprinkler. Norb’s band gives the album its title, and also its narration. The opening track, “Theme,” starts with “Reverend Knob,” declaring that “The SUCK are back an better than ever, and yes! They’re gonna drink your beer and kick your ass, and no! There’s not a goddamn thing you can do about it!” At the other end of the album, J Prozac, of The Prozacs, gets called out in “J Prozac on a BMX Bike.” In between are odes to beer, sex, nerds playing Dungeons and Dragons, and “Reverend Knob” letting us know when side A ends, side B begins, and the record is over. The SUCK won’t be creating anything genre defining, but these tongue-in-cheek songs are a boisterous hoot.

SUNDAY STATE (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, snappylittlenumbers.limitedrun.com)

Sunday State had a casual start, with two long-time Pacific Northwest musicians getting together to write some songs. Michael Carothers and Kurt Foster determined the songs were worth exploring further and recruited some of their friends, including Steve Turner (of Mudhoney and Green River), Jeremy Dietz (Mission Spotlight), and Thom Sullivan (The Pynnacles) to fill out the band. Given this pedigree, I expected something heavy and distorted, in the vein of classic PNW grunge classics. Instead, we get songs that are intensely melodic, with deep, commanding, tuneful vocals. Sure, the guitars have plenty of buzz, but no one is going to confuse this with grunge; this is indie-rock. The LP opens with “Tinder Town Run,” a track with a majestic feel. I love the bouncy pop of “Junior Spacecraft Overheated, and the light touch of Americana in “Faded Nashville” is unexpected and quietly charming. The instrumentals in “All Sales Final” are played as a leisurely waltz, but the vocals are emphatic and intense, but always mellifluous. And I adore the intertwining vocal lines in “Fields of Grass.” There’s even a cover of the Gordon Lightfoot song, “Sundown,” and it fits right in with the other songs, with a tougher and more solid rendition than the original. The album closer is a quiet acoustic number, “Picture Your Audience,” that’s just lovely. Very unexpected; nice surprises are always appreciated.

 

JOSH CATERER – The Hideout Sessions (Pravda Records, joshcaterer.bandcamp.com)

Man, I could listen to Josh Caterer sing all day. The Smoking Popes’ front man has a silky smooth croon that is just so soothing. Last October, Chicago’s aptly named venue The Hideout, which has been closed since March, 2020 like everything else, hosted a live stream event in which Caterer teamed up with other Chicago area musicians (John San Juan of Hushdrops and John Perrin of NRBQ) for an evening of live music. The entire proceedings were recorded, not just for posterity, but for the most unique live album; one in which the audience was entirely virtual, watching from home. The album contains a mix of classic standards and Smoking Popes tunes, both like you’ve never heard then before. Caterer’s voice is tailor-made to sing standards, like “My Funny Valentine,” “Rags to Riches,” and “What Kind of Fool Am I?” But in the hands of these talented musicians, the first is reimagined like a romantic grunge tune. The second, which was a big Tony Bennett hit, is changed from an angst-filled plea to a joyful jumping song. And the inimitable Flamingos classic becomes something dreamy and contemplative. A couple of the songs don’t quite qualify as standards yet. Show tunes are represented in this set by “Goodnight My Someone,” from “The Music Man,” and Caterer and company turn the song of longing into something that sounds happy and hopeful, more up-tempo and bouncier than the original, by far. Roberta Flack’s hit “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is here too, and Caterer does a fine job, his voice full of emotion, but I don’t see how anyone could ever top Flack’s stirring original. The Smoking Popes songs that are featured include “Megan,” from “Destination Failure,” which is played somewhat more slowly here than the original, more of a ballad. “Need You Around” from the album “Born To Quit” is one of the Popes’ biggest songs, and the original contrasts a peppy song with half-tempo crooning vocals that glide over the instrumentals. In this special live stream version, the band is slowed down to match the vocals, which are sung more tentatively, indicating less certainty of feeling. “Writing a Letter” reaches way back to the earliest days of the Popes, appearing on their self-released EP “2.” It’s a staple of their live shows, and it’s one of their speedier, punkier songs. This version, though, is much more relaxed and easy going, with a mix of island breeze and funkiness. And Max Crawford joins in toward the end of the song with some trumpet, injecting a bit of jazz to the proceedings. The album ends with “Someday I’ll Smile Again,” a song that also closes The Popes’ most recent LP, “Into the Agony.” The original version is the kind where you sort of expect people to hold up their lighters and sway back and forth. The Hideout version is slower, sadder, and almost guaranteed to evoke a tear or two.

DEPARTURE LOUNGE – Transmeridian (Violette Records, www.violetterecords.com)

Talk about taking a long hiatus, Departure Lounge’s last album was nearly two decades ago. But there’s no rust or dust on this new LP, recorded in a massive 24-hour session at a studio in rural Devon, England amidst the heady rush of the band’s reunion shows prior to the pandemic. The pastoral surroundings certainly must have influenced the songs, because they’re quite lovely, relaxed, and even folksy. After a calming intro track, “Antelope Winnebago Club,” which features reverb-laden fluttering piano lines, we get songs that are mildly psychedelic folk-rock such as “Australia.” Then there are some straight-up acoustic songs with breathy vocals, like “Timber,” backed with a Casio synth adding a warming tone. I love the wobbly magical ending of the song when the synths fade away like ripples on the sea. There are other instrumental tracks, too, such as the piano-dominant “Harvest Mood,” a modestly jazz-like ballad, and “Al Aire Libre,” which has a vaguely Mediterranean ethnic folk sound. The melodic lead is alternately taken by whistling and by trumpet. Speaking of jazz-like, the waltz-time “Mercury in Retrograde” is somewhat jazzy, with brushed snare drum and bright keyboards. But the acoustic guitar and ever-relaxed vocals are more folk-like, so maybe we can call this jazz-folk-pop? Whatever it is, it provides for a warm cozy feeling, the opposite of what Mercury being in retrograde is supposed to signify. There’s the soulful pop of “Mr. Friendly” and the experimental pop of “Gurnard Pines.” Though the songs range through various styles, the one thing they all have that ties them together is the sense of peace, calm, and ease that they emit. Pretty stuff.

DEVON KAY & THE SOLUTIONS – Parchment & Petroleum (devonkayandthesolutions.bandcamp.com)

The March installment of DK&TS’ “album of singles” is here, and though the horns and synths are still here, this song sees somewhat of a return to the band’s pop punk roots, in terms of melody and attitude. The song has a martial rhythm and a pretty chorale of a chorus. Four singles in and this one may be the best yet.

 

 

FLÉAU (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)

Translated to English, the band’s name means “scourge,” and this French band surely sounds the part. The band are described as being a French Oi/street punk band, but that doesn’t do them justice. They’re not cookie cutter pub punk; this band is brutal. The four songs on this debut EP pound relentlessly, with metallic power and punk attitude. Vocals are growled and in-your-face, with a take no prisoners character. Reportedly, the band describe themselves as a “band of mercenaries,” their songs are all about battle, and they wear medieval helms when they play. I believe it. This is a ripper.

FRANKIE & HIS FINGERS – Universal Hurt (SubFamily Records, subfamilyrecords.bandcamp.com)

Not to be confused with the LA garage rock band, Frankie And Tthe Witch Fingers, this Frankie & His Fingers are a band from New York’s Hudson Valley that broke up in 2010, reunited briefly in 2013, and now are back again with a new LP. The band mostly plays their own brand of indie rock, but on occasion branch into power pop, glam, and even arena rock styles on some songs. I strongly prefer the songs that lean more toward the indie side, like “Sad to Let You Down Like This,” a song that’s a little more delicate and less in your face than some of the others. “The Greatest Hometown Song Ever Written,” too, is a more subdued song, and the glockenspiel echoing the guitars on the bridge is a nice touch. The vocals have a slightly nerd-pop feel to them, which is pleasing. “Just Because You Are, Doesn't Mean You Have To” is a nice indie pop tune that’s kind of breezy, except there’s a guitar solo layered on top of the actual song that’s a little annoying; it competes with the vocals. The opening track, “Celebrate!” features some arena rock guitar licks that don’t do much for me, violating the rule that you should put your best song first on an LP. “Cake Heart” mixes glam and arena rock with some power pop and is one of the weaker tracks, and the closer, “There's a Dragon in that Cave,” is an interesting way to close the album, leaving the listener with a taste of cheesy arena and synth rock mixed together. Overall, this is about 50/50 for me.

GRACIOUS LOSERS – Six Road Ends (Last Night From Glasgow, shop.lastnightfromglasgow.com)

As soon as the first track began, I knew I was going to like this LP. Gracious Losers is a Glasgow, Scotland group consisting of a core of nine people, all from various other bands from the Scottish scene. For this sophomore album, though, the band did the nearly impossible (and unthinkable): recording as a fifteen-piece during a global pandemic. And though I don’t condone such actions, I’m glad they did, nonetheless, because there are moments of astounding beauty within the eleven tracks and thirty-nine minutes of the album. That first track, “Till I Go Home,” begins as an a cappella spiritual with interjections from the full band, and it’s glorious. The album spans multiple genres, from folk to psychedelic, from indie rock to twangy “outlaw” country-rock. Songs like “The Big Land” feature thickly arranged music that’s heavily inspired by the psychedelic folk-rock of the 1970s, with a distinct peace and love sound. “Everything Begins, Everything Ends” features psychedelic folk, with lush strings, violin and cello, that are stunningly gorgeous. A jazz clarinet wails toward the end of this quietly soulful song. Speaking of soulful, “You Got The Reach On Me” has plenty of soul.” And I really like the light touch of “Come When You’re Ready,” which is very 70s-like. There’s intimate stripped-down acoustic, too, such as on “Flood Came Down The Hill,” featuring plucked guitar, hushed vocals, and a lonely harmonica. “The Lead And The Light” is another bare-bones song that’s jaw dropping in its simplicity and beauty. Acoustic guitar and aching vocals join together in a pleading song of desperation, and the simple sustained notes from an unknown instrument (is it another harmonica? A wind instrument? Synth?) are haunting. Like I said, I knew from the very start that I was going to like this.

K7S – Mondo Bizarro (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

Released in super limited quantities a couple months ago by Stardumb Records and Family Spree Records, Kool Kat Musik is making this sold-out release available once again. And with it, K7s, the Spanish pop punk band that features US ex-pat Kurt Baker, join a long tradition of pop punk bands rerecording Ramones LPs in their entirety. It’s a tradition started by Selfless Records (now Clearview Records) with Screeching Weasel's rendition of “The Ramones” in 1993, followed by The Queers (“Rocket To Russia”) and The Vindictives (“Leave Home”) in 1994. In 1996, Boris The Sprinkler released “End of the Century” and in 1997, The Parasites did “It’s Alive.” These were followed by The Mr. T Experience (“Road To Ruin”) and Beatnik Termites (“Pleasant Dreams”) in 1998, and finally those eggsters The McRackins (“Too Tough to Die”) in 2000. [There have also been four "unofficial" Ramones cover albums outside the Selfless/Clearview series from John Cougar Concentration Camp, Norway's Tip Toppers, The Kobanes, and The Young Rochelles doing, respectively, Too Tough To Die, Subterranean Jungle, Halfway To Sanity, and Animal Boy.] Now, Kurt Baker's Spain-based trio K7s give us their version of “Mondo Bizarro” from start to finish. And don’t get me wrong, I love K7's, they’re a cool band. They do a great job with these songs; they’re faithful renditions and sound terrific. But I never understood these releases. I understand covering a song here and there, but re-recording and releasing an entire album? If I want to hear these songs back to back, why wouldn’t I just listen to the original LP? And “Mondo Bizarro” isn’t even of the Ramones’ best; it’s well down the rankings, actually. I guess all the “good” ones were already taken? If you’re a fan of cover LP's, by all means, get this – it’s very well executed. But I think I’ll put on an album of K7's originals right now.

SPACE CADET – Lion On A Leash (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)

If I didn’t know that “Lion On A Leash” is Space Cadet’s debut LP, I’d think they’re a band that’s been around since the 80s, because there’s a definite 80s underground pop vibe going on through most of the nine songs therein. Guitars both buzz and jangle, and a heavy layer of reverb gives the proceedings a distant, lonely sound that’s a counterpoint to the upbeat pop in the melodies. This is definitely another sign that Wiretap Records is branching out further from their pop punk and emo roots. Space Cadet was formed by Matt Hock and David Walsh, who play together in the punk band The Explosion. They never knew they both had a love of post-punk and new wave, and once they discovered this mutual passion, Space Cadet was born. For this record they also enlisted some high-powered musical friends to help fill out the band, including Brian Baker (yes, that Brian Baker). I like the blend of darkness and poppiness, especially on songs like “No Accident,” which is the closest thing you’ll find to a new wave ballad in this modern age. Synths provide for an atmospheric backdrop, as guitars drone and vocals are chanted. It has a mystical quality, in an 80s underground sort of way. “Bad Luck” is pretty different from most of the songs, with more of a 60s Brit-rock mod-pop sound, and it’s a real fun one. But the bulk of the album reminds me of UK new wave pop band New Musik, who had a bit of an indie hit with their song “Straight Lines,” though Space Cadet is a bit more subtle with the synths, and a bit thicker with the guitars. The album closer is an instrumental called “Slo¨,” which is less 80s pop and more cinematic in sound; this could be from the soundtrack to some sort of 80s action adventure flick. It’s intense yet chill at the same time. This album shows how you can take inspiration from old sounds and make them seem fresh.

VARIOUS – "Nice One" 4-way Split EP (Rad Girlfriend Records, www.radgirlfriendrecords.com / Brassneck Records, brassneckrecords.bandcamp.com)

This is one of the most appropriately titled EPs ever, because it definitely is a nice one. This record is the third installment of Rad Girlfriend’s 4-way split series (I never understood calling anything with more than two bands a split. It’s a comp!), and features new music from The Slow Death, Tiltwheel, Spoilers, and Mackie (from UK's Blitz, recording his own version of Blitz single that he didn't play on originally.) The record is a split-label release with Brassneck Records, based in the UK, so two of the artists are from the United States and two are from Great Britain. The opening track is the sort of cover: Mackie McLennan, one of the founding members of the band Blitz, gives us a new rendition of the classic “New Age.” I remember when I first heard this song when I bought the 12” version of the single in 1983 or 84, and the impact it had. This new “cover” version is very true to the original and brings me back to my youth. And all I gotta say, Mackie, is, "the kids definitely do care." The Slow Death’s new song is “Young Trees,” an anthem for the generation growing up living with fatalism, knowing that nothing is ever going to get better. “We are the young trees waiting for the axe to fall,” declares the chorus. The song is perfect for fans of the band, it’s got the same big feel the band is known for, and Jesse Thorson’s deep gruff vocals have a sound of resignation. Tiltwheel’s contribution is “Ballad of a Dry Brain,” and it cements the San Diego band’s position as a favorite. Davey Tilt’s ability with guitar tone is legendary, and the rhythm section of Bob (drums) and Matty (bass) propel the song with intensity – especially the manic bass lines. The big surprise of the EP is Spoilers, a band from Kent I had not previously heard. And I think I like their song, “There, Well Thereabouts,” the most of all. It’s got a bright open sound, poppy and bouncy, with verses that are quieter and a little bit folk and choruses that are big and thick. Yeah, this is a very nice one.


 

AMERICAN CULTURE – For My Animals (Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records, www.hhbtm.com)

One word review: Trippy. American Culture is a band that doesn’t shy away from not just lo-fi noise, not just from deep reverb, but also from wobbly sounds that will make you feel like you’re on an acid trip. The title track, for example, starts out like any regular lo-fi pop tune, nice and bouncy but with layers of distortion. As the song progresses, it feels like the notes start to bend and droop, like the tape is stretched or the motor is having problems. Reality is what’s distorted, maybe? Or your perception? It’s a cool effect. “No Peace” comes right after and is even more mind-altering. Acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bongos, drums, and flute jam together in a psychedelic jazzy way, with vocals partly sung, partly spoken, reminding me of Current 93’s David Tibet. The very dry sounding, very present flute plays fluttering lines, as the rest of the music is heavily reverbed, providing a stark contrast. The lyrics are arcane and mysterious, and, though it took me several listens of the LP, I’m finally “getting” it and this song is one of my favorites. I get freaked out every time “Pedals” starts; it’s got the same wobbliness in the jangly guitars and sounds like a soundtrack to some early 70s movie, but the film projector isn’t working right, or the world isn’t – or you aren’t. “I Like American Music” mixes funk-rock and dub together and smears the whole thing with the lo-fi technique to create something that sounds…wrong, but right. The closest thing I can think of to describe this is to mention a girlfriend of someone I knew decades ago who was tripping, and 7 Seconds cover of Nena’s “99 Red Balloons” came on, and she was sure something was wrong because the song didn’t sound quite “right.” It’s like that; it’s a familiar sound, but different and unexpected. I enjoy “1972,” a song that uses pulsating Krautrock rhythms, an indie melody, and a prog-rock synth all layered on top of each other to create something quite unique. And just as the song starts to wind down, the synths that were rock solid throughout start to waver, unable to hold a note, reality is fading in and out again. Whoa. The closing track, “Natural Violence,” reminds me a bit of The Fall, but again, played through some sort of reality distorting filter. Most of the songs on the album are like this; I’ve never done any psychedelics, but I can image this album is sort of what it would be like. I could have done without the reggae dub pieces, of which there are a few. “Lude Dub” (as in Interlude, or maybe Quaalude?) is a short piece that will have you reaching for the ganja. And “Dub For Eagles” is a longer one, three and a half minutes of reggae dub, and it does nothing for me. But overall this album is a challenging yet rewarding listen.

EN GARDE - Debtors (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, www.cylsrecords.com)

En Garde was formed in 2011 by Ross Horvath (vocals/guitar) and Andy Hendricks (drums), and if I hadn’t read that in the press kit that they’re just a duo I wouldn’t have guessed it, because they have a rich, full sound. They went into the studio in the summer of 2012, and it’s taken until now to get the resulting recordings out. But it was worth the wait, because the five songs on this EP are outstanding. En Garde play a mix of emo, math, and indie styles, with Horvath displaying both wizardry on the guitar and intensity in his melodic vocals. The rapid guitar work, with so many notes coming at you in a short span, and the equally intricate drumming from Hendricks, are contrasted against smoother melodies that ride on top of the beat at a more leisurely pace. It’s hard to keep up with everything going on at the start of “Self Portraits,” the third track of the EP, and once the intro ends we get a dark, pretty waltz time song that alternates between soft and hard, between jazzy and gritty. I like, too, the shifting time signatures of “Edetulism.” And “Tightropes” may be my favorite track of the EP; its constant swirling guitar and complex math-rock rhythms act as a counterpoint to the more relaxed pace of the vocal melody (which itself is delivered with fervor). I sure hope En Garde are still active and planning to record more (and maybe tour, once that’s a possibility) because this is fantastic stuff.

PHANTOM WAVE – Wilds (phantomwaveband.bandcamp.com)

This is quite a nice, calming album, blending dream-pop, shoe-gaze, and indie styles. Phantom Wave hail from Brooklyn and are comprised of core members Ian Carpenter (guitar, vocals) and Rachel Fischer (drums). The sound contains the jangle of pop, the fuzz of shoegaze, and the reverb-laden sounds of dream pop. I like how the lead guitar on “Antereograde,” the opening track, has a clear lush sound, while underneath, in the background, there are noisier guitars, although that might just be the reverb effects. “Resin” has the feel of a lazy hazy indie rock song, but with the layers of distortion and reverb, the shoegaze and dream influences are felt. The album’s lead single, “Billows,” has an ethereal quality for most of it, but occasionally the guitars get big. This is really dreamy stuff, and shows you can do good dream pop without tons of electronics. “Recursive” is the heaviest track of the LP, with sections of almost “hard” rocking, but for the most part it’s still big and dreamy. “Glower” is a nice breezy up-tempo track, with an indie melody but produced with so much fuzz and reverb it’s very hazy sounding, and it’s one of my favorites of the album. “Across The Avenues” is another favorite, with its stronger pop feel and wall of velutinous guitar. I’m not so enamored with “Amarinthine,” which to me sounds kind of like a dreamier version of early U2. The other thing that I’m not so enamored with is the length of the album. It’s twelve songs and 56 minutes. I like most of these songs, but almost an hour of the sound gets to be a bit much and the songs blend together too much. This could be trimmed down to maybe 30 minutes (with songs left over for a couple of EPs) and it would be perfect.

SAFETY – Greetings From The Sunshine State (Jetsam-Flotsam, www.jetsam-flotsam.com)

East-coast band Safety may be no more, but they’ve left behind this six-song EP to remember them by. And it’s hard to know what to make of it, because it sounds like it’s a split EP, with a few different bands. “Songs of The Night Gator” is the edgiest track, with a smoothed out post-hardcore sound, while “Sounds of The Coast” has more of an indie/post-emo sound, with a chugging rhythm. I like these two tracks, a lot, and was anticipating loving the rest. “Everglader” sounds more like a chorale, with deeply harmonized vocals. It almost sounds like a rock holiday song. And it’s nice, but it just doesn’t fit with the first two tracks at all. “Spanish Moss” and “Civilized” also have harmonized vocals, but the former sounds kind of like a 2000s emo ballad and the latter is pretty indie pop. “Heat Lightning” brings back the edgy post-hardcore, but only in the chorus, while the verses are kind of jazzy. I really like the first two and the last of the tracks, but the other three don’t do much for me.

STONER CONTROL – Sparkle Endlessly (stonercontrol.bandcamp.com)

With a name like “Stoner Control,” I expected, well, stoner music. But this is, mercifully, not that. Instead it’s really nice indie pop and pop punk. The music induces plenty of head bobbing and tow tapping, with lilting melodies and relaxed nerd-pop vocals. I really love the bounce of the title track, which is also one of the more thickly arranged songs with bigger guitars than most, and it’s got trumpet toward the end of the song that fits in perfectly! “Only” has lovely jangling guitars that move at a faster pace with the drums, as the bass and vocals glide on top with a more relaxed feel. “Know I Slept” has a grunge-pop feel, and it gets huge toward the end, like a perfect set-ending song, though it’s not the last track of the LP. There isn’t a bad track on this one – if you like poppy guitar-fueled music with a bit of a nerd-pop sound, you’re going to adore this as much as I do.

TEARJERKER – Deep End (www.tearjerker.bandcamp.com)

What a perfect name for this band. I recall a Washington DC band from years ago called Tear Jerks, and they too, played sorrow-filled songs that set quite a mood. So does Tearjerker, though the songs are not as noisy as the DC band’s, and some of them even have a sense of hope to them. Perhaps the saddest of the five songs is “Poor Me,” not just in title but also in sound. A lonely guitar accompanies a piano, while a chorus a vocalists sing a lament, reverb heightening the effect. It’s just so morose, so depressing, and so good. The other tracks, while having a melancholy aura about them, at least have hints of brightness, glimmers of hope. Especially the title track, which closes the EP. The piano and synths shimmer, there’s a bit of energy in the beat, and the way the vocals soar on some of the melodic lines makes on feel all is not lost. Some really nice touches on this EP include the hushed unison vocals and the recordings of babbling streams. The whole thing sets a wonderful mood, which music is supposed to do. Tearjerker does it really well.

SIM WILLIAMS – Whites of the Eyes (simwilliams.bandcamp.com)

A British ex-pat now living in Southern California, Sim Williams is a veteran of punk rock, having toured internationally with multiple bands. But in 2015 he decided to strike out on his own, and “Whites of the Eyes” represents Williams’ sophomore full-length LP since going solo. And it actually sounds like there are two different LPs competing for attention here, as some of the songs are full-band and others are either fully acoustic or mostly acoustic with only modest accompaniment. The thing that all the songs have in common is the earnest feel of a singer-songwriter. The full-band sounds have a bit of twang and a working class rock and roll aesthetic, similar to Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band, a favorite of mine. I do think I like the quieter songs a little better here, the ones that are a little more Spartan; I think the emotion comes through more clearly without the extra instrumentation. “Bridges” is one such song, with just Williams’ guitar and slightly gruff vocals, heart on his sleeve with lyrics that speak to the inevitable breakdown of relationships and life: “It’s like when everything around you / Crumbles into earth / If hearts were made for breaking / Are bridges built to burn?” I also really love “Hearts Begin to Rust,” a song which mates Williams’ acoustic guitar with some subtle slide guitar, and toward the end, as the song rises in intensity, a gritty electric guitar adds to the background. The song speaks to recognizing one’s faults, particularly when it comes to a relationship, but how the words of his significant other can heal him: “Still every word she says to me / Sounds like a love song / When I feel my heart begin to rust.” “Coming Down (With White Line Fever)” is another one, with pretty plucked acoustic guitar, electric guitar providing some background, and Williams’ pleading vocals singing what I interpret to be about his decision to move out of LA into more secluded environs, referring to how much he loved the city, yet how he recognized how damaging it was to him, at the same time. The sincerity of the sentiment comes through so clearly. The closing track is an acoustic version of “Cannonball,” which appears as a full-band track earlier in the album, and while the full-band version rocks out, the intimacy of the acoustic version is so much more impactful; the pained emotions come through more clearly and can’t be hidden behind the arrangements. That’s not to say the songs with thicker instrumentation are devoid of emotion. The opening track, “Rattle My Soul,” is a hell of a lot of fun, a big sing-along pub song kind of track. And the other full-band tracks are good, too. “Hell Only Knows” is sort of a hybrid, starting out as a quiet intimate song, then getting bigger, more instruments joining in over time, and it’s quite effective. I do like the quieter tracks best, but this is a pretty solid LP, if you’re a fan of singer-songwriter fare.


COMA TWINS (comatwinsrock.bandcamp.com)

The Coma Twins have been kicking around for years, starting life as an acoustic duo, and evolving into a “full band” along the way. But it’s still the product of the duo of Jason Paul and Sean Coles, two members of San Pedro, California’s close-knit community of DIY musicians. And while this album features a “full band,” it’s still just the two of them, playing all the guitars, bass, and drums, and performing all the vocals. The music is…comfortable. It leaves me feeling warm and satisfied, like a meal of comfort food. The songs range through power pop, pop punk, Americana, and indie rock styles, and you can’t help but feel the pleasure in listening that it’s obvious the pair had playing these songs. The opening track is some pretty pleasant power pop, “Waiting To Be Late.” The guitars jangle so easily and the song has a nice breezy feel. “Whiskey Friends” is another jangler, but this time with an Americana feel to it. The song seems to speak of remembering happy times (likening them to carefree summer days), and looking forward to gloomy solitude (using winter as a simile), with TV and liquor as one’s only companions. Sort of like the pandemic. “Need a Little Lie” is a fun one, done in the style of a children’s song, with a simple, bouncy, repetitive melody. But the lyrics sure aren’t child-like, speaking to the lies we all tell each other and tell ourselves just to get through life without breaking down into a crying heap. Another one with an airy sound is “Whittier’s Alright For Fighting,” a song that feels free and easy, remembrances of childhood antics that “Should’ve killed us, but it didn’t.” “Frozen Ludes” blends indie and twangy Americana into a song that seems to me to talk about mental illness. “There’s a creep in me / (He won’t let me be) / Blessing and a curse / (He won’t let me be) / At least he gives me words / Whispers in my ear.” The darkest song of the album has to be “Donor 9623,” with lines like “I feel the evil like a still-born twin / Who’s jealous of your foolish will to live.” The song goes on to allude to self-destructive behaviors and suicide attempts, drug use, and the inability to cope. The music uses gentle acoustic guitars as a contrast to the harshness of the lyrics. The Coma Twins’ relaxed DIY music is the perfect antidote to over-produced slick “punk rock” bands that are all too common. And the topics in these songs are real life that we can all relate to.

DEECRACKS – Serious Issues (Pirates Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)

DeeCRACKS, everybody’s favorite Austrian punk rock band, is back with their fifth full-length LP, and their second for Pirates Press since 2018’s “Sonic Delusions.” The band could easily be pigeonholed into a pop punk category, but they’re more than that. Sure, they’ve obviously taken a few pages from the playbooks of bands like Teenage Bottlerocket, The Ramones, and Screeching Weasel. The songs are predominantly at a moderate pace, the guitars are big, and the arrangements will sound familiar to fans of these sorts of bands. The gritty gravelly vocals complement the music well. There’s even a “One Two Three Four! Shout that’ll make TBR fans happy. I really like the bright sound of “A Reason.” I think I hear keyboards among the huge Ramonescore of this track. The guitar tone during the solo at the bridge on “We Can’t Help It” has gorgeous jangly power pop mixed in with the punk rock, and it makes for a great combination. A couple of tracks are pretty different from the others. They’re instrumentals, for one, and for another, they’re surf rock. “Desert Storm Surf” opens the LP, and it’s actually one of my favorite tracks of the album. It’s got a classic surf beat and melody, but the arrangement and tone is pure punk. The combination is pretty heady. “The Ambien Shake” is the other one, and it’s a little different, with a lonelier sound and hints of Latin music, and quite nice. “Not Today” is the angriest sounding track on the LP, the closest to old school hardcore the band gets, and there are hints of surf sound mixed in, too. Punk rock, surf rock, hardcore, power pop…DeeCRACKS do it all in this worthy album.

HANALEI – Black Snow (A-F Records, www.a-frecords.com)

Hanalei is the vehicle used by Brian Moss, best known from the late, lamented The Great Apes, to write and record music that’s more indie than punk-edged. It’s been an on-again off-again project, and, in fact, it’s been more than ten years since the last Hanalei full-length LP. Listening to Moss’ solo effort, I am reminded a lot of the gentler aspects of The Great Apes, the songs that were more introspective and less angry sounding, especially on the band’s last and best album, “California Heart.” Like Moss’ work with Great Apes, this album is a collection of fictional narratives, this time telling stories from first person perspectives from a near future of environmental and societal collapse. Musically, the ten songs mostly blend jangly and noisy guitar sounds, and Moss’ gentle vocals complement the instrumentals well. The opening track, “Screen Echoes,” is a nice mix of indie rock with a surf guitar tone that I really like. “Antibody” is bright and about as raucous as things get in the album, but still in a gentle way. It was written a year before the pandemic, but it’s about a virus that’s unearthed by fracking. “A Billion Ghosts” trades the thick guitars for a quieter, lonelier sound. Just Moss’ sad guitar and pleading vocals are on this one for half the track, and even when the bass and drums join in, the whole thing is very subdued and solemn, Moss’ singing reminding me a little bit of REM’s Michael Stipe, with its slightly higher register, the barely present quaver, and the understated emotion of it. “Common Coqui,” too, has the same quieter sound, eschewing the wall of guitar sound for more open space. It’s a moody instrumental with a subdued tribal rhythm, and it brings to mind images of unspoiled land, being in harmony with nature, as we hear the almost birdlike chirrups of the coqui, a small tropical frog, in the background. There’s a feeling of floating down a river, sun filtering through trees overhead. “Steep Ravine” is a pretty ballad, another quieter song with a deep resonant bass tone that wraps itself around your soul. The final track, “This Is Not the End” closes things going back to the brighter indie sound, showing that no matter how bleak things get, where there’s life there’s hope.

JUSTIN COURTNEY PIERRE – An Anthropologist on Mars (Epitaph Records, www.epitaph.com)

Mars may be a planet that NASA just sent a probe to, but it also is a metaphor for Justin Courtney Pierre’s inner self, and the five songs on this new EP are an excavation of those aspects of himself that he’s kept hidden for many years. Pierre’s background in pop punk (he is a founding member of the pop punk band Motion City Soundtrack) is clearly evident, because the songs have a definite pop punk and power pop base, though they do tend toward a cleaner indie sound. The first song, “Dyin’ To Know,” is sort of an introduction to the concept, with its refrain, “I’m just dyin’ to know who you are.” It’s a bright song in 3/4 time, drums pounding out every beat, guitars madly jangling, and Pierre’s vocals sounding slightly desperate to uncover some answers. As the investigation of the dig site progresses, Pierre realizes “I Hate Myself,” a song that examines self-loathing and how one might compare their own life to those of others. The big open sound of the chorus contrasts with the more closed sound of the verses, and the power pop influence is clearly evident. The other three songs continue the themes, musically and lyrically, with some great indie/power pop. “Illumination” ends things with some findings. “Used to be cool / I used to be very cool / Save for the acid wash,” the song begins. As it goes on it explains how things have changed, and “All of the things I thought that might have been / Have washed away like winter in the wind.” The piano and backing vocals on this give it a stage musical finale sort of quality. This is a great listen. I actually wish it was longer.

SHIP THIEVES – Irruption (Chunksaah Records, www.chunksaah.com)

Fronted by Hot Water Music’s Chris Wollard, Ship Thieves started life with the intent of being a solo project, but over time it evolved to become a full band. Irruption is the band’s fourth LP and the first in nearly five years, since “Anchor” was released in 2016. True to form, the LP is chock full of big punk rock anthems, big striding guitars, pounding drums, and loads of energy. There’s a metallic edge to the proceedings, and gruff vocals are accompanied by shouted gang vocals. “Tangled Net” is a favorite, its dark feel tempered by a somewhat poppy melody, the lead vocals even more emphatic and urgent sounding than on any of the other tracks. “Hercules Stomp” stands out as somewhat different, with more of a pop punk sound, harmonized vocals giving it a sweetness in a Masked Intruder sort of way. Then there are tracks like “Virulent Man” and “(Don’t Wanna) Face the Dog,” which are hard rock and roll, with the former having power pop elements that give it sort of a 70s rock and roll sound and the latter sounding more hard driving and metallic. But for the most part, the bulk of the tracks are solid big punk rock. A decent listen.

THE STREETWALKIN’ CHEETAHS – One More Drink (Dead Beat Records, www.dead-beat-records.com)

LA’s big rock’n’roll cats are back with their first LP in what, fifteen years? And man, this record is all over the place, musically. There’s good ol’ rock and roll, there’s new wave, indie, even punk rock, all from one band. It’s like a musical tour through various rock music sub-genres, with the opening track “Ain’t It Summer,” being a 70s power pop anthem, “Fast, Fucked, and Furious” being a pummeling Motorhead type track blended with a hint of glam, and “Bad Vacation” being an indie-rocker type track. “One More Drink” is a favorite, mixing power pop and indie rock styles, and the up-tempo harmonized vocals are well done. I enjoy the 80s rock song “We Are The Ones (We've Been Waiting For),” sounding like something that could have come from the soundtrack of a John Hughes teen angst flick. “The Rejected” will surprise the hell out of you (it did me) because it’s a skate punk song, and so different from anything else on the LP. “Rumblin’ Train” is just good-time rock and roll, as are “Warzone” and “Switchblade Knights,” with a pub rock sort of vibe. Eclectic, for sure, these cats have “something for everyone,” as the saying goes.


ADULT MOM – Driver (Epitaph Records, www.epitaph.com)

Epitaph has really branched out lately… a lot. This is maybe about the most un-Epitaph release I’ve ever heard. There isn’t an iota of “punk” in this record, but Driver is enjoyable nonetheless. Adult Mom is the singer-songwriter project of Stevie Knipe, along with sometime collaborators and friends Olivia Battell and Allegra Eidinger. Songs range from Americana and folk to indie-pop, and tell stories about navigating one’s way through life. The opening track, “Passenger,” is a distinct contrast from the album’s title, Driver. Knipe, the driver, sings about another person who is a “passenger ” and how the two are opposites. “You’re a lover / I am not / And that’s why I left you / That’s why I left you.” Opposites may attract, as the saying goes, but it doesn’t always make for great relationships, and as the driver, Knipe declares control over their own life. I love the pretty indie-pop tune “Wisconsin,” a reminiscence of intimate moments with a partner. The jangly guitars, breezy vocals, and harmonized backing vocals are just lovely. “Sober” is another favorite, mixing indie-pop jangle and bubbly synths. “You’ve been sober now for a few days now, and I bet that it helps,” the song begins. “You’ve not sent me a text that says you love me still.” The song goes on to speak of life without a relationship; “And the only thing that I’ve done is drink beer and masturbate and ignore phone calls from you. What else am I supposed to do?” The song refers back to the dichotomy of driver vs. passenger in the car, and how two people that are so opposite can’t work together. I think my favorite of the record, though, may be “Regret,” a song that sounds almost like a hymn, acoustic guitar gently strumming while synths provide a steady rhythm and an ethereal atmosphere. “I was amazed you would treat me this way / Thought you were a grace, thought you were a saint.” The pain of the hurt is clear, and the solemn delivery of the music and the image of the fall from grace of a loved one is incredibly touching. Adult Mom may be a very different sort of Epitaph signing than those of us who listen to a lot of punk may be used to, but I’m glad they’ll get the sort of exposure a label of their size can provide, because this is nice stuff.

BURNING NICKELS – Cobwebs (highenddenimrecords.bandcamp.com)

This latest incarnation of Canada’s Burning Nickels has never practiced together in the same room due to the global pandemic (the most recent addition to the band, bassist Robbie Morön, lives in a different city than the original core duo of Josh Hauta and Jason “Ozone” Ezeard), but you would never be able to tell from the tight professional sounds on this newest EP. It contains four songs, three that include special guests performers, and as a result there are distinctly different sounds in each. The title track comes first and features Dan “Danny Boy” Garrison of The Corps. It’s a huge pop punk song about being stuck in a rut, feelings of depression keeping you from caring enough to even get out of bed, and being turned off by friends who express concern. But all is not hopeless, as depression passes, outlooks brighten, and life begins again. The bright guitar, bouncy pace, and harmonized vocals contrast with the darkness of the sentiment. Speaking of sentiment, the next song is titled “Sentiment,” and features guest Alex Goldfarb of Trashed Ambulance, a band that Burning Nickels’ Hauta is also in. Surprise! It’s a cover of the Trashed Ambulance song from their sophomore LP, “Flashes of Competence.” In this new version the music is played a little more smoothly, though Goldfarb’s vocals are just as gritty as ever. “Bootstraps” features Red Scare artist Sam Russo, and the song blends Russo’s emotional solo style with powerful skate punk. The tight harmonies are gorgeous and the song feels epic. Closing things out is the one song without a guest: “Summer Boner” is a fun poppy punky tune that’s a nostalgic look back at the lost love of youth. Though the title sounds crude, the sentiment is expressed in the lyrics, the chorus declaring, “Your pretty face was more than just a summer boner,” as our narrator recalls his love moving away. If this is what Burning Nickels can do during the pandemic without ever playing together in the same room, I can’t wait to hear what they do once the pandemic is over!

BRIAN DAMAGE – Yesterday’s Slime (www.permanentbriandamage. bandcamp.com)

Eclectic and varied, this new album from Ohio’s Brian Damage (not to be confused with the deceased drummer from The Misfits) offers multiple variations on the indie rock and indie pop genres, and there’s plenty of satire and parody, a la Ween. It’s like taking a virtual tour of the indie music scene in one thirty-minute listen. The album opens with the grandiose sounds of “Too Far,” a track that uses keyboards to give it a huge prog-rock feel mixed with noisy indie-pop guitars. “Appease Your Finger,” which comes next, sounds kind of like Stereolab mixed with power pop, the former coming from the keyboard sound and the latter from the guitars and vocals. I love the jangly sounds of “Juicy Secret” and “Coolest Guy,” the first using guitars and the second synths to create the happy feel. “Coolest Guy” has a blend of new wave and baroque, with the synths almost having the delicate sounds of a harpsichord. “Psycho Horny” is some great garage punk, with energetic noisy guitars that blend the simplicity of Ramones-core with a hint of Jesus and Mary Chain fuzziness. And “Jewel Encrusted Plane” blends quiet acoustic with spacey synths to create something somewhat calming. The album isn’t entirely without faults. “Goofing Off In Hell” is a parody of schlocky metal, but it just comes off as juvenile and a bit annoying. And the office lament “Cubical Blues” seems a bit silly to me, synths in the forefront and a dragging tempo. But overall, this is a pretty fun record.

DECENT CRIMINAL – "DC" EP (Sell The Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com)

Members of Decent Criminal continue to migrate around the state of California, yet still found the time during the pandemic to record and release a new EP. The band continues to evolve their sound, the three (or four – more on that in a minute) songs are each unique examples of the bands progression over time. “Drifter” represents the newest sound from the quartet, a blend of hard-edged indie rock and dream-pop, making use of interesting studio effects to create new textures that are both tough and hazy. It’s some of the best music from Decent Criminal I’ve heard in awhile (mainly because it’s been over a year since I’ve heard them, damn you COVID). “Reap” feels more like early Decent Criminal, with loads of retro elements mixed into the indie rock, in this case some late 70s Motown and disco. “Bizarre” is more like mid-period Decent Criminal, circa the “Bliss” LP, with a bigger, harder sound. But wait! That’s only three songs! The fourth song is an acoustic version of “Bizarre,” and while the full band version rocks out, the acoustic version sounds much more introspective. As much as I’ve loved Decent Criminal’s songs over the past several years, I have to say I’m very intrigued with the new sound of “Drifter,” and am anxious to hear what it sounds like live, when that becomes a thing again.

HUMAN TROPHY – Corpse Dream (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)

Human Trophy is the project of Reuben Sawyer, a man who has worked in many genres. In his Human Trophy incarnation, he’s playing driving post-punk with goth overtones. The music is lo-fi, with gritty guitars, driving bass, and deep deadpan vocals. This stuff is certainly wrapped in darkness, and there’s a feeling of foreboding throughout the ten tracks. Even when some of the tracks have a distinct dance beat, like “Forming Horrors,” there’s an ominousness that you can’t shake. Think Wax Trax industrial music crossed with shoegaze crossed with goth. Taken individually, these are great songs. Taken as a 30-minute album, this sort of style does tend to get as little bit monotonous to my ears, though.

ITCHY SELF – Here’s The Rub (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)

This is the debut from the new group from Joe Chamandy of Canadian art-scuzz proponents Protruder. Deeply rooted in garage and power pop, Itchy Self has a loose feel, and the five-song EP starts strongly, with jangly guitars, distinctly 70s power-pop garage-influenced melodies, and urgent distorted vocals. But there’s a decline from there. The first two tracks (“B What You B” and Here’s the Rub”) are raucous good fun. But then we start getting slower tracks that are more like an unrehearsed version of the Rolling Stones, and the closing track is a blues-rock jam, but distorted and thin sounding. I really like those first two tracks, but the rest: meh.

SMIRK (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk / Feel It Records, www.feelitrecords.bandcamp.com)

Smirk is the solo project of Public Eye’s Nick Vicario, and this LP contains a mixed bag of 12 songs. Some of them are brilliant, like “Eyes Conversing,” one of the lead singles. It’s something right out of the early art-punk playbook, guitar, bass, drums, and synths playing music that blends punk snot, garage noise, and new wave angularity. And “Construction,” which opens the LP, sounds like early math-rock with its dropped beats, but it’s definitely more early punk with a nice power pop jangle. “Lude” and “Lude 2,” two short instrumental interludes of between 30 seconds and a minute each, are amazing sonic art, with “Lude 1” being primarily synth driven, reminding me of the soundtrack for a low-budget sci-fi flick. “Lude 2” uses a pretty acoustic classical guitar track, then manipulates it, speeding it and slowing it, bending the notes ‘til they almost break. I love the drive of “Do You?” And the closing track, “Irrelevant Man,” is jangly and in-your-face punk at the same time. But then there are tracks like “Violent Game,” which is just a pub band rock and roll tune. “New Way Out” tries to be oddball, but sounds thin and I don’t get it. There’s more goodness here than clunkers, and the good is really good; but it’s a mixed bag.

THE STOOLS – Feelin’ Fine (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)

Hot on the heels of the “Carport” EP, the Detroit garage rockers are back with another EP, this time four tracks of pure unadulterated scummy rock and roll, just the kind your parents warned you about. And if you thought “Carport” was intense, well, buckle your seatbelt, buddy. With “Can’t Feel Good,” the manic convulsions begin. “Half Track Mind” will speed you to your doom, careening over the edge of a cliff. This is one fucking punk rock track like you haven’t heard in decades. “Rockpile” struts around like it knows it’s the king. And “Eyeball Crush” brings it on home with a loosey goosey track of growling bass and insane vocals. Listening to this even once might turn you into a delinquent who hangs out in back alleys wearing leather jackets, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol. What are you waiting for?

TRIGGER CUT – Rogo (triggercut1.bandcamp.com)

German band Trigger Cut are only a trio, but they make enough noise for a five-piece. And what a noise they make! The trio are certainly children of the 90's, because this album is a celebration of the best of late 80's and 90's musical styles. Imagine taking the post-hardcore of bands like Quicksand or Refused, melding it with the intensity and artistry of a Steve Albini band like Big Black, Shellac, or Rapeman, and then mixing in the spastic melodic sense of 90's Dischord bands like Fugazi or Circus Lupus, and you’ve got an inkling of what you’re in for once you drop the needle into the lead-in groove. The intensity begins immediately and doesn’t let up for one second of the thirty-four minutes of this LP. When “Solid State” begins, we get relentless mechanical pounding of the percussion, then the guitar begins to scream and the bass slaps you silly. Ralph Ralph’s vocals spit out emphatically, shouting and singing as of his life depended on it. On “Coffin Digger,” at one point the guitar and bass drop away, leaving mostly drums, and Ralph’s vocals begin to plead – then the band has halting periods of silence, with just sneering, quiet statements from Ralph. It’s such an Albini thing to do. The mechanical nature of the bass and percussion at the end of this song is amazing, and the bass tone is outstanding. I like how, amidst the noise and chaos of “Oxcart,” there’s some DC post-revolution summer melodic content. “Hooray Hooray” has the controlled mania of Circus Lupus combined with the steady rhythm of Shellac, which I find attractive. “Fireworks” is the most DC post-hardcore/post-emo of the album, I think. The closer, “Yesss Brother,” is perhaps the most angular sounding track. This is a great record, every song played with feverish intensity. I can imagine a live show (remember those?) being a visceral experience. If there’s one wish I could have, it might be that the songs were recorded with a little bit higher fidelity. I know the lo-fi sound is intentional, but I think a slightly cleaner sound would make this even better. Oh, a second wish: that the pandemic ends and Trigger Cut tour the Western USA.

TIGERS JAW – I Won’t Care How You Remember Me (Hopeless Records, www.hopelessrecords.com)

The long-standing Pennsylvania band is back with their sixth full-length LP. It contains a mix of musical styles ranging from light emo to poppy indie rock. Having been born in the 2000's, the band’s brand of emo bears no resemblance to the emo I “grew up” on, that being the mid 80's music of Revolution Summer, which slowly evolved over the latter half of the decade and first half of the 90's into both big melodic songs and intense “screamo.” In the 2000's much of what was called “emo” was little more than slickly produced guitar-fueled pop music that went over the top. That said, even though Tigers Jaw was part of that scene, they never went too far, their music having a lighter touch. This latest musical missive is no different, opening with the title track, which itself begins as an intimate acoustic song, first with simple guitar and pleading vocals. Then piano comes in quietly, along with harmonizing vocals. Halfway through, the full band comes in, the piano starts hitting some big striding chords, the vocals rocking and begging. “Cat’s Cradle” is next, and may be my favorite song of the album. Synths buzz along with guitars, and lilting vocals sing a bubbly melody for what may be the poppiest bounciest song on the LP. And “Hesitation” is a pleasant indie rock tune with breezy guitars and a driving rhythm. Even the songs that lean more toward the emo end of the spectrum are light and listenable. Songs like “New Detroit,” “Can’t Wait Forever,” and “Body Language” have more melodic content and more of a pop feel than typical songs of the genre. The tightly harmonized vocals might get to be a little much; more sparing use of that could end up sounding more sincere, though the songs in which Brianna Collins takes the lead do sound more heartfelt. There’s a buoyancy in her singing that lifts up every track she’s on. While I don’t think this album is going to be genre defining or anything, it’s a pleasant listen.


CRUZ RADICAL – Death-Train EP (cruzradical.bandcamp.com)

These are the last two Cruz Radical songs to be recorded, back in 2018. Shortly after these were recorded, for various reasons the band ended. These songs sat, never having gone through final mix or mastering, so they are raw – perfect for capturing Cruz Radical’s live sound. The title track is punk fuckin’ rock. Just a few chords, lots of speed, and lots of power are the key ingredients. The death train, or “tren de la muerte,” refers to the risks we take in life to fulfill dreams and ambitions, especially those of refugees fleeing violence and death in Central America to make their way north to the USA. “System Reset” is a little more moderately paced, but no less powerful. A big wall of guitar and pounding bass and drums accompany the vocals that sing about how we all need to do a “system reset” to break away from the system that tries to indoctrinate society with racist and classist beliefs. Man, I miss Cruz Radical, but it’s nice to have these final tracks.

DEVON KAY AND THE SOLUTIONS – Frustrated People of the World, Unite! (devonkayandthesolutions.bandcamp.com)

Back with a third single in three months, DK&TS are making good on a promise to give us new music every month – an album of all singles, as they call it. This latest one sees the band comment on the shittiest year we’ve ever gone through, the music moving further from their pop punk roots and more toward a pure ska and even a rock steady mix with rock (the song is too slow to be ska, but too fast to be reggae). Synths and horns blare in a bouncy rhythm as Kay sings and shouts about being bored and frustrated, sitting on his couch, while receiving constant judgment and concern from friends. If nothing else, 2020 created plenty of fodder for songs.

KITTYHAWK – Mikey’s Favorite Songs (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, countyourluckystars.limitedrun.com)

Kittyhawk, well. The Chicago band that included members of Dowsing, Pet Symmetry, plus touring members of Into It Over It, the group that released a single full-length LP, one EP, and a few split EPs with other bands that broke up in 2016? They announced they were getting back together mere months before the pandemic hit. Their long out of print EP and splits are now collected together into this full-length collection, and just in time for things to pick up again as the public gets vaccinated and a new crop of fans are ready to get excited. And excited you will be, if you, like me, are a fan of the indie-pop sound of the 90s championed by record labels like Simple Machines and Teen Beat Records. The record starts out with the band’s debut 5-song EP, and the opening track, aptly titled “The First One,” jangles in a lovely way, and dueling female and male vocals are perfect. After a couple of verses the guitars get a little bit noisier and there are competing melodic lines in the lead and backing vocals. “Older/Wiser,” too, alternates between twee verses and an edgier chorus with intertwining melodies. “Science Fiction” is an outlier, an introspective instrumental with lo-fi recording of a child in the background. “He Travels in a Suit” may be my favorite of the whole collection, featuring that classic indie-pop jangle blended with lusher thicker guitar sections. And “Partial Paradigm” is a quiet ballad with synths that feel a little out of place. The band’s contribution to a holiday release is here; their rendition of the classic “Silver Bells” is pretty. Also present are the trio of songs from their split with Cherry Cola Champions, the bookends (“The Green” and “The Red”) follow their earlier formula, the middle one (“The Rot”) being very different, with lo-fi fuzzed organ and harmonized vocals, sounding like a DIY indie hymn. “The Daily Dodger” and “Food Fight” come from a four-way split (isn’t that just a comp?) they did with Prawn, Droughts, and Framework, while “Soft Serve” is from another with The World Is A Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, Rozwell, and Two Knights, and they’re all lovely. The collection closes with the band’s contribution to a Motown tribute compilation; “You Keep Me Hanging On)”isn’t my taste, it’s a blend of AM pop and dreamy pop, instrumentals coming just from a keyboard. But other than that track, this retrospective has me anxious for that long-awaited return to activity.

THE MARTHA’S VINEYARD FERRIES – Suns Out Guns Out (Ernest Jenning Record Co., www.ernestjenning.com)

I could kick myself. Seriously, how did I not know this band existed? To be fair, they’ve only released one EP (2010’s “In The Pond”) and one LP (2013’s “Mass. Grave:”), but come on! This band includes Bob Weston (Shellac, Volcano Suns, Mission of Burma), Chris Brokaw (Codeine, Come), and Elisha Wiesner (Kahoots). So, they’ve finally gotten around to recording and releasing their sophomore LP, and it’s wonderfully understated indie rock, of the type I loved listening to in the 1990s. Nothing raucous or brainless, nothing twee or trite, this is music to take in and ponder. Even within the genre I described, there’s variation in the songs, as each member makes their contributions. The whole album is a great listen, but there are specific songs that stand out to me. The deliberate “MC Modern” opens the album with a slow, steady rhythm, the bass in unison with the drums providing the beat, the guitar and vocals vying with their distinct melodic lines. “After You” is one of the more driving songs of the album, the rhythm pounding out as the lyrics speak of all the things to be done and created and named after someone. “I could write a song / About everything I do wrong / I’d tell my point of view / And I could name it after you / I could write a book / About all the drugs I took / And every word would be true / And I’d name it after you.” It doesn’t seem that someone is part of a healthy relationship. I like how the guitar sound evolves from indie jangle to a dark surf sound through the song. And though I’m not a fan of jams, the end of the song, the last third, really, is just that, the instruments riffing, the guitar processed and modulated, sounding like a spaceship launching. I like the combination of lazy jangle and gritty fuzz of “The Daily Biscuit,” the smooth vocals (including hushed harmonized backing vocals) a beautiful counterpoint to the coarseness of the guitar. “Laos” is a gorgeous waltz in 6/8 time, the bass oompahing up and down, the guitar fluttering, and yet there’s a solid sense of solemnity to it that reminds me of Slint crossed with Rodan, two great bands from the era. Man, I’ve been living under a rock. Don’t be like me; get on this.

THE RED STEP (Pravda Records, www.pravdamusic.com)

The Red Step reminds me of Pearl Jam, in some ways, blending grunge and pop to create an alternative rock sound that’s halfway between the two. The vocals kind of remind me of John Reis of Rocket From The Crypt, having a gritty throatiness, and the way sustained notes sort of glide and hang in mid-air. And the band is from Belgrade, Serbia, which is an interesting twist. They have a darkness to the sound of most of their songs that comes from the keys they’re played in, the slow to moderate tempo, and the eeriness of the organ. The result is an alt-rock gothic mélange. Notes on a few of the tracks: “Reset” and “We Live On High” have the same moderate pace of most of the songs, but they’re bouncier and peppier than most, but they’re just as dark. Poppy and dark? It’s a compelling combination. “The Harvest” uses bowed cello to great effect, giving the song an orchestral sound, and the way the notes slide and bend provides a sinister feel, evil dripping from every note. “Temporary Loss” becomes a jam toward the end, which is probably the weakest part of the album. There really isn’t anything especially new or different about this debut LP from The Red Step, but for some reason it draws me in and holds my attention.


CORVAIR (Paper Walls, www.corvairband.com)

Corvair is the Portland-based husband and wife team of Brian Naubert and Heather Larimer, both seasoned musicians. Though they have a long history of playing in various other bands, this self-titled album represents their debut together as Corvair. The music is lightly dreamy indie pop, with hints of 70s AM radio pop mixed in here and there. The guitar seems to have a strong power pop vibe going on with big power chords on some of the tracks, and there’s a nice warmth from the electric organ and nicely harmonized vocals. Occasionally the songs get big and glorious, like on “Paladin,” the second track. It’s a standard enough pop tune, with a nice melody and arrangement, but it changes at the halfway mark, after a brief guitar solo and gets big and dreamy, with soaring backing vocals. As the song fades, the instruments disappear, leaving harmonized vocals echoing as if in a vast cathedral. Some of the songs have gorgeous synthesized intros, like “Sailor Down.” Somber buzzing synths play a morose melody, as the music slowly rises, then suddenly the intro is gone and the track transforms into a bouncy pop tune. “Daily Double” does the same, with a fascinating, mysterious intro before transforming, first into a dark instrumental. When the vocals come in we get a rock and roll ballad in the tradition of the 1950s and 60s songs that sang sad tales of dead boyfriends. Though they’re just intros, some of them are even more interesting than the songs, and I wish Corvair would explore some of those ideas more deeply. Some of the tracks are really effective at blending styles, like “Green (Mean Time),” which has jangly indie pop, dreamy pop, and AM bubblegum sounds all rolled into one. And I love Larimer’s vocals on this and other songs; they’re crystal clear and sung with a relaxed ease. I think I like the songs where she takes the lead vocals the best. “Focus Puller” is another one of these, this one mostly quiet with sparse instrumentation and a lonely sound. I like the unique blend of genres on this LP, creating something new out of old styles, something that sounds different from a lot of other music being made.

CORMAC RUSSELL – I Don’t Miss You (cormacrussell.bandcamp.com)

Cormac Russell is a Canadian-born Irish-raised singer-songwriter with three full-length albums under his belt in just the past year and half. He’s prepping a fourth, and “I Don’t Miss You” is his latest single. Russell plays all the instruments himself, with acoustic guitar, piano, and drums delicately accompanying his hushed vocals in this lovely waltz time song. The song is apparently addressed to an ex, someone who left under less than amicable circumstances. The harsh words contrast with the tender music and vocals. But true feelings are laid bare at as the song comes to a close; after repeating multiple times “I don’t miss you at all,” the final lyrics are “You better know, baby, that I miss you a lot.” It’s a lovely, understated song.

SEAN TOBIN – St. Patrick’s Day Forever (www.seantobinmusic.com)

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, New Jersey’s raucous troubadour, Sean Tobin, gives us the gift of a new EP. And true to the form of Irish music, the songs tell stories. The title track is a lively tune that references the increase in drinking that accompanied the COVID lockdown over the past year. It builds up to a frenzy, and exclaims, “Frankly I don’t blame you if you if it’s what we gotta do / To keep people from dying then I’ll stay home for you / I just miss my friends and the bars!” The next bit gets all sad and sentimental, with “It’s comin’ up on summer and I’m still drinkin’ stout / I would be switching to Corona but I don’t think that’s allowed.” I LOLed. “Ode to Anna Liffey’s” is a sweet farewell to New Haven, Connecticut’s now shuttered Irish bar, Anna Liffey’s. It’s starts as a ballad that tells the tale of Tobin’s relationship with the institution, starting with how he first wandered into the place with friends and found they had “three types of beer, blond, black or red,” and how these friends drank all day at the place and tried to slip out without paying. “But Liam, the barman, he caught us alright / He made us pay up then banned us for life.” The song then becomes a buoyant dance number and recounts how the friends returned two years later, assuming their sentence was done, and how Liam remembered them, but they all became fast friends. Acoustic guitar and fiddle cavort together, as percussion and bass propel the song along. The song returns to ballad form as Tobin sings how he was in New Jersey when he heard the news that Anna Liffey’s was closing, and how all the memories made there were covered up by the new owners. He sings about how “Me and the crew we went up that September / To check it all out and maybe remember / How whiskey tastes when you have nothing to lose / No weight on your shoulders and nothing to prove.” The song ends with a big rendition of the chorus that goes out to all the bars that are forced to close and “go down swinging.” There is a pair of covers on the EP, too. “Dirty Old Town,” written by Ewan MacColl in 1949, covered by many, and popularized by The Pogues. Tobin’s rendition opens with harmonica, similar to the recording by the Pogues. But unlike most versions, which are slower and wistful, Tobin’s is bright and up-tempo, with mandolin and concertina in the arrangement. The other cover is a traditional Scottish parting song, “The Parting Glass.” Before the poet Robert Burns wrote “Auld Lang Syne,” it was the most popular parting song in Scotland. The title refers to the “stirrup cup” that a host would offer a departing guest as he mounted upon his horse, to fortify him for his journey home. The Clancey Brothers and Tommy Makem reintroduced the song to the public in the mid 20th century, and Tobin’s interpretation is suitably somber, with acoustic guitar accompanying his singing, a violin and bowed bass joining in on the second verse. The violin soars during the instrumental bridge, the acoustic guitar providing a martial rhythm. It’s breathtaking. Bleedin’ massive.


THE CRAIG TORSO SHOW – Estonian Breakfast Strategies (thecraigtorsoshow.bandcamp.com)

Yes, the band is named for the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band track that appeared as a bonus track on the “Gorilla” CD. The comedy track was a fictional variety show with guests that performed in myriad genres. And so it is with this project, a product of collaboration between Joe Merklee (Damfino) and Oliver Ignatius (Holy Fang Studios). The pair wrote all but three of the songs, provided all the vocals, and played all the instruments except the drums. The result is a dozen songs that are quite varied in tone and attitude. Some are humorous, some serious, some rock (in a light pop sort of way), some are more delicate. “Living In Deep Space” has the feel of the soundtrack to a low-budget 1970s sci-fi movie with pop culture elements of the day; it rocks out with some light psych touches, and speaks to the maddening boredom of isolation that comes with living in deep space (or in pandemic isolation?). It may be that it’s a sci-fi porno, too, because another track on the LP is “Zero-Gravity Sex,” a bouncy pop tune about the joys of intimacy in an environment free of the confines of the pull of the Earth. I really like “Ellen Thompson’s Guide To Mortality,” a track that has an emphatic rhythm mirrored in the guitars and drums, plus a driving piano line that gets quite manic on the bridge. I like the grandiosity of “The Irish Chiropodist,” which uses chimes and mandolin in the instrumentation, and what sounds like a hammered dulcimer, perhaps, near the end giving it a mix of turn of the century old-timey music with modern noise rock. “I Gave That Kid Away” is a heartbreaking folk song that speaks to the way our nation tosses away our young by sending them to the military, to go to foreign lands as fodder for pointless wars, and how some young people see no alternative but to enlist, unable to find a job.

As I mentioned, there are a few songs the pair did not write; three covers appear here. One is a faithful rendition of the lovely Bevis Frond song, “The Wind Blew All Around Me,” that uses some keyboards to fill out the song and make it feel more sacred, in a way. Another is The Magnetic Fields’ “I Have The Moon,” a version that uses zither and strings to create something that feels wholly different from the original, less quirky and more spiritual, especially when the tabla comes in. And I adore the touching, delicate version of The Go-Betweens’ “The Man Who Died In Rapture,” with its mournful cello and jangling guitar accompanying the plaintive vocals. This last one is well sequenced, paired with “Should A Cassowary Kick You,” which immediately follows. It’s another quiet, contemplative tune, this time an instrumental with flutes and sitar setting quite a mood.

The Craig Torso Show may have started life as a comedy bit with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, but in the hands of Merklee and Ignatius, it’s become something equally as varied and quite wondrous.

DEATH BY UNGA BUNGA – Heavy Male Insecurity (Jansen Records, www.jansenrecords.com)

Taking their name from an LP released by The Mummies in 2003, Norway’s Death By Unga Bunga has been actively making music for more than a decade. “Heavy Male Insecurity” is their sixth full-length LP. They effortlessly blend garage rock, pop punk, psych, and glam into an infectious whole. The opening track is easily my favorite of the ten on offer. “Modern Man” is a powerful garage-influenced power pop/pop punk song with a veritable wall of guitars and anthemic vocals. There’s a sense of fun and showmanship in the presentation that’s all too often missing from many bands. The guitar solo (something I normally detest) is perfect here, injecting a sense of glam into the proceedings. The band are obviously having a blast playing these songs, and you can hear that clearly in the glorious power pop song “My Buddy and Me,” a song that feels bright and bouncy. “Not Like The Others” is another favorite, with a strong power pop vibe and both glam and rock and roll guitar licks. “Live Until I Die” is an interesting mash up of glam and dark metallic punk styles, and the harmonized vocals on the chorus are pure AM pop goodness. “Trouble” pits deep growling bass against classic power pop melody and vocals, the grittiness of the low end contrasting with the smoother pop to create an awesome musical texture. The phrase “has something for everyone” is tired and trite and usually means blandness follows, but in this case there really is something for everyone who is a fan of good rock and roll music.

HOTELS ON MARS – Grief Museum (Styles Upon Styles, www.susrecords.com)

Mat Weitman began Hotels On Mars in Chicago, but after a time abandoned the project. After spending time in quarantine, like the rest of us, and experiencing grief resulting from the sudden loss of a close friend, Weitman resurrected Hotels on Mars and began writing and recording these songs. The opener sums things up pretty well, titled “The Worst Year on Record.” Acoustic guitar provides the base of the song, with a twangy electric slide guitar giving the song a desperate country blues feel mixed in with the folksy singer-songwriter vibe from the acoustic guitar and the loose, easy vocals. The pattern is carried throughout the album, with songs like “Indiana” being a bit more upbeat and bouncy, some more countrified like the pretty waltz “All I Want's a Picture of Your Favorite Bar,” a song that speaks about wanting to feel close to someone who’s caused you pain. I really like the mysterious instrumental that gives the album its title. “Grief Museum Rag” is hardly a rag, sounding a little bit lounge-like, with strummed electric guitar replacing the acoustic. The layering of guitars here is lovely, and there’s a shimmer to the music. “Mimosas” is another instrumental, this one light and meandering, a little dreamy and soft around the edges. “Chernobyl” has a nice psych-folk feel to it, sounding like something out of place in time. The closer is “Untitled No. 4,” the most folk-like of the album. It feels more introspective than the other songs, and the lead guitar here imparts a very lonely sound against the acoustic guitar, the vocals about feeling lost after having wasted one’s life in a now broken relationship.

There are some problems I have with this LP. The first is the mix. The lead guitar overwhelms everything else, and after awhile it gets to be a bit piercing. Even when the lead guitar is absent, like in “For Dee,” the mix is off, the vocals pulled so far back they sound like they were recorded in a different room than the keyboards, guitar, and drums. And because the instrumentation is so limited, there’s a sameness to most of tracks – but this is understandable given the limitations of recording by one’s self during a pandemic. These things are correctable errors. What’s less forgivable, though, are the vocals on “(I Don’t Want to) Hurt Myself.” Throughout the album the vocals are relaxed, though with masked pain evident. On this song, though, they’re out of tune; the song is a mess. Maybe it’s intentional, with the sentiment of the song, about causing self-harm by drinking one’s self to death. But it’s hard to listen to. Like I said, most of these things are correctable with some good studio time and a solid audio engineer. Maybe after self-quarantining is over and Weitman is ready with some more material, some new songs can get recorded a bit more properly. I expect the result will be much stronger, and these otherwise good songs deserve that.

KILLER KIN – “Sonic Love” b/w “Narrow Mind” (Pig Baby Records, www.pigbabyrecords.com)

Take some soulful early rock and roll music, a la Little Richard, speed it up, fuzz it up, and throw it in the garage. That’s Killer Kin on “Sonic Love,” the A-side of a new 7” single. The opening bars feature super-fuzzed guitar sounding like a garage version of Stereolab for just a moment, then the song gets going and the early bluesy rock speeds into your soul. The B-side seems like a different band, though. Still old school hard rock and roll, but on “Narrow Mind” the band seems to channel more of a Stooges sound, a bit slower, sludgier, and powerful. The common elements are the fuzzed guitars and bass and the intensity of the vocals. Good stuff.

REST EASY – Sick Day (Mutant League Records, www.mutantleaguerecords.com)

This Vancouver band mix skate punk and pop punk styles to produce something that’s speedy, crunchy, and melodic. This four-song EP is the band’s debut, though these are not novice punks, the band being made up of members of Daggermouth and Shook Ones. The opening track, “Get Busy Dyin’,” starts out as speedy skatecore, fast and furious with snarly shouted vocals. But just past the halfway mark, things slow down and the song starts to remind me of the transitional period of DC hardcore, when bands were slowing things down and injecting melody while still remaining edgy and powerful (note: I love DC hardcore). “Headaches” mixes the speed and power of skate punk with the bounce and melodic content of pop punk, while “Bad Idea” leaves the speed behind for a hard-edged pop punk tune with some intense emotional content, plenty of gang vocals for the crowds to sing along to (once we have live music again). And the closer is the title track, a muscular yet tuneful track. These are good songs; the playing is nice and tight. The intensity of the vocals sometimes gets to be a bit much, but this is a strong debut.

SICK THOUGHTS – “Poor Boys” b/w “Drug Rock” (Goodbye Boozy Records, goodbyeboozydigital.bandcamp.com)

Take some early Devo, some early punk, some early metal, mix it all up and you’ve an idea of the sick thoughts that must have gone through the minds of these reprobates when they came up with the idea to form this band. Raw rock and roll, simple chords, pounding keyboards and drums, thumping bass, and rapid strumming of guitars all meet together in a frenzy of controlled chaos. It’s where the party is.

SPODEE BOY – Rides Again (Goodbye Boozy Records, goodbyeboozydigital.bandcamp.com)

Spodee Boy is from Nashville, home of the Grand Ole Opry, but Spodee Boy is about as far from country music as you can get. This rock and roll is…different. The title A-side on this 7” has the sound of a western theme song, if the Old West had been won by punk rock surfers. The drums and bass provide a rhythm mimicking the rapid gallop of a horse, while the guitar strums maniacally with a reverb-laden surf sound. Vocals are loudly spoken and partially sung in a manner that makes one question the sobriety of the singer. The B-side, “Dress The Part,” sounds sort of like 80s post-punk meets 60s garage, the surf guitar still front and center. This pretty unique stuff, and I love unique.

THE STOOLS – Carport (Goodbye Boozy Records, goodbyeboozydigital.bandcamp.com)

The Stools are a young trio out of Detroit, keeping the Motor City rock and roll flame brightly burning. This new EP features a quartet of tracks, three of which feature old school punked up rock. “Life’s Hard Lover” is a great garage punk tune with simple chords and simple lyrics to shout along to, as is “Hedge Witch.” “Multiple Maniacs” is as close to the early 80s hardcore punk sound as you’re likely to get from a current band, and probably my favorite of the EP. And the outlier is “End Up There,” a slower more straightforward garage rock and roll tune. This is raw rock and roll, the best kind.

TOLEDO – Jockeys of Love (www.thebandtoledo.com)

Toledo is a duo, made up of Jordan Dunn-Pilz and Dan Alvarez. And though they’re named after the city in Ohio, they’re actually from Brooklyn. The duo have yet to release a full-length LP, primarily releasing a series of singles and EPs up to now, and “Jockeys of Love” is their latest, a six-song affair. The music is luxuriant orchestral pop music with understated, hushed vocals. Acoustic guitar blends with lithe percussion and keyboards producing a blissful sound. “Dog Has Its Day” is a little bit different, with twangy guitars mixing with the light falsetto vocals. I like the relaxed ease of “Sunday Funday;” the interplay between the keyboards and guitar is just lovely. The music on this EP isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s certainly pretty.


ANTAGONIZERS ATL – Kings (Pirates Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)

Street punk isn’t complicated. It’s pretty simple, basic rock and roll music, really. It’s most suitable for dive bars where large groups of people sing along loudly and drunkenly. It’s the perfect music for forgetting about your problems and just thinking about the unity of the moment. Everyone is in the same boat and knows what you’re going through. They’re rousing anthems, and Antagonizers ATL do it well, and no better example exists than “Black Clouds,” a track they originally released last October. It’s huge, with big gang vocals, bright melody and singing guitars. If you’re familiar with the genre, I don’t have to say too much more, because the music is somewhat formulaic. There are some variations, though, like the hard rocking in “No Rest For The Wicked,” “Believe,” and especially “Us Against The World.” They still stick to the standard game plan, but the music is a little more metallic. And “Hold On Hold Strong” has a reggae break halfway through, complete with fake Jamaican accent. “Problems” is a track with problems, ironically. It’s a lecture to someone who whines and bitches about the pettiest things, with the chorus declaring, “If I had your problems I’d have no problems at all.” But the gang vocals on the chorus are only partially sung, and it ends up sounding odd and a bit out of tune. Like I said, this is simple formulaic music, but if you’re a fan of the genre you can’t go wrong here. Antagonizers ATL do a solid job.

THE CAVEMEN – "Am I a Monster" b/w "Schizophrenia" (Pig Baby Records, www.pigbabyrecords.com)

New Zealand’s kings of the garage are back with a new two-song 7” single. Noisy, raucous garage rock and roll, primitive as can be, is the rule here – they’re cave men, after all. But these Cavemen will pummel you with their guitars, bass, and drums rather than a club. The music is intense and punishing, raw and unrefined, like the best garage rock and roll should be. “Am I a Monster” is the better of the two, in my opinion, a little tighter and more controlled, but then, you might expect a song called “Schizophrenia” to be somewhat off the wall and out of control, and it certainly is. I always have high expectations when there’s a new Cavemen record, and I’ve never been let down.

COUNTERPUNCH – "Handbook for the Recently Debriefed" b/w "We, the Role" (Thousand Islands Records, www.thousandislandsrecords.com)

Counterpunch are from Chicago, and have a different sound from most Chicago punk bands. They play music that’s speedy like skate punk, but harder and more metallic than most, yet still loaded with melodic content. The two songs on this new 7” are the first new songs from the band since their 2014 LP, “Bruises.” Of the two songs, I think I like “We, the Role” better; it’s a little poppier while still remaining powerful and edgy. Lyrically it references how life has become little more than a TV “reality” show, with all of us playing a role, social media and biased news sources controlling our minds with “alternative facts.” The title track is dark and politically charged, with stabbing contempt aimed at the outgoing presidential administration and its cult-like followers. There are big shouted gang vocals and tight harmonies in the lead vocals; fans of old school Fat Wreck Chords metallic punk are going to love this new record.

JORDAN KRIMSTON – Bushwhacking (www.jordankrimston.bandcamp.com)

Formerly a member of Big Bad Buffalo, and currently part of Miss New Buddha and Band Argument, San Diego’s Jordan Krimston steps out on his own with his solo debut. Krimston is a talented songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, equally comfortable with a variety of genres. This talent is on full display on this LP, with songs ranging widely in styles. The biggest unifying factor is the brightness of these songs, and the arrangements are inventive. I love the abruptness with which some of the tracks change, like on the opening title track. It begins with a mysterious experimental sound, odd electronics providing an eerie feel with the sound of running water. The strange sounds fade, leaving us with some plucked acoustic guitar strings, and those slow down as if running out of steam, when suddenly, the full band comes in, electric guitars, bass, drums, and sparkling synths. The track speeds by, the drums a rapid locomotive of rhythm, while the vocals run at one quarter the pace. There’s a cool sense of chaos, but the whole thing holds together without going off the rails. Those synths provide a variety of feels within the track, from dreamy to radiant. As the track ends, the ambience and running water return, and then yield to the opening bits of the next track, “Betty.” This one’s more straightforward pop, yet with an amazing arrangement that makes it stand out from run of the mill tunes. “Kindling” is a short transitional track, which features the sound of a crackling fire and manipulated acoustic guitar str ums. It provides a sense of being out in the woods at night in the dark with the fire to keep you warm. “TwoBrains” is a favorite with a plethora of brilliant synth sounds and lyrics about feeling conflicted about things. I like, too, the shifting rhythms of “Rooster,” keeping the listener off kilter just enough, the synths buzzing about, as Krimston’s vocals contrast with smoothness. The insertion of an actual rooster crowing is a hilarious touch, too. As the track bops toward the end with a glistening beat, it suddenly changes to soft ethereal synths that just as suddenly fall off like someone pulled the power cord on a turntable. The guitar interplay on “Back Home” is a gas, and I like how there seems to be a duel between acoustic and electric guitars and the synths, with them passing off the melodic line to each other. The closing track is “Dozing,” and it has a vaguely retro pop feel with the haziness of a dream. As the song comes toward the end, it fully enters slumber land, the music getting fuzzy and increasingly distant and distorted, unreal. What a way to start the year! This is highly recommended!

THE TELESCOPES – Songs of Love and Revolution (Tapete Records, www.tapeterecords.de)

The Telescopes are lifers. Founded in 1987 in the UK, The Telescopes have been categorized as a noise band, a space rock band, as dream pop, and as a psychedelic band. And yes, that’s all accurate. This latest LP, their twelfth studio outing, ranges through all of these sounds, starting with the sludge-filled noise drone of “This Is Not A Dream.” The track takes the minimalism of Krautrock and fuzzes it up immensely, then throws in noisy guitars and loads of dissonance. “Strange Waves,” too, has a Krautrock underpinning, with a steady four-four beat and droning guitars and bass, subdued vocals, and noisy lead guitars. I love the alternation between the intense distortion and a cleaner mix. By contrast, “Mesmerized” is a quiet folk-psych tune, in a way, with drum and bass providing a sparse backdrop to the vibrating intensity of the guitar strums. The understated vocals are hypnotizing. As is the entire LP, perfect it may be for inducing altered states. The title track is a startling contrast, coming six tracks in, with its relative calm and clean sound, a tribal beat driving the minimalist instrumentals. “You’re Never Alone With Despair,” too, has a quiet, cleaner sound, with the exception of a noisy lead guitar, providing a counterpoint for the near silence of the vocals. The ending track, “Haul Away The Anchor,” features the sound of the sea, the calling of gulls heard, and in the distance we hear the old sea shanty. This record makes me want to pull out my old NEU! and Stereolab records. It’s a nice change of pace.

45 ADAPTERS – Now Or Never (Pirates Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)

New York’s 45 Adapters call themselves a NYC Oi band, and some of their songs are somewhat street punk. But there’s a lot of melodic content in these songs, and some jangly guitars, so it’s more of a mash-up of Oi and power pop. The title track, which also made an appearance on a recent Pirates Press Records compilation LP, is the perfect example. The song could be an instant power pop hit, and it’s only the big gang vocals that give it a Oi sensibility. The lead vocals are sung rather than gruffly shouted, and the result rocks so well. Similarly, Friendship has more singing and melody than typical Oi, but the faster pace, darker sound, and “Oi! Oi! Oi!” backing vocals are, well, more Oi oriented. This reminds me of when the California punk band Youth Brigade started to move away from hardcore and more toward melodic rock with their single “What Price Happiness?” On “Ready Blood” the power pop finally gives way to a more definite street punk vibe, less melodic bounce and more of an edge. “Let’s Play” is the one track of the half dozen that didn’t do much for me, with a somewhat punked rock and roll feel. “Shabby” is another great melodic rocker about how you can put someone in flashy clothes, but if they’re a shit person they’re still going to be “shabby on the inside. I could have done without the “rock’n’roll” guitar solo, though. It’s quite different from most of Pirates Press’ output, and I like it.

GORDON WITHERS / THE 1984 DRAFT – "Honest" EP (Poptek Records, www.poptek.com)

One song, two versions, all for a good cause. “Honest” is a song from The 1984 Draft’s LP “Makes Good Choices.” It’s a gorgeous lush song with a soaring, dreamy quality to it. The song speaks to recognizing the aging process, but staying active and involved in life because of someone else who makes it worthwhile. Front man Joe Anderl’s vocals range from delicate and pained to enormous and emotional, mirroring the instrumentals. The guitar stars out quiet and somber, and ascend to lofty heights. It’s one of the standout songs from the LP. Gordon Withers is a renowned cellist that most recently made a splash with his cello recordings of Jawbreaker songs. He also plays with J Robbins, the legendary musician from Washington, DC, in The J Robbins Band (and has played with Robbins in Office of Future Plans). His recording of “Honest” as a cello quartet started life as a one-of-a-kind 7” Christmas gift to Anderl, but thinking more people might like to hear it, he and Withers brought the idea to Poptek to release the cello recording and original together as a 7” to raise money for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The cello version of the song is quite beautiful, sounding more like a tone poem than an indie rock song. The arranging is gorgeous, with melodic lines intertwining, and with an emphatic, pleading, and ultimately hopeful sound. It’s so good, it’s hard to choose which version is better. Recommended, for the music and for the cause.


 

COLE ANYWAY – Sitting With Stillness (coleanyway.bandcamp.com)

Cole Emoff is a multi-instrumentalist, video editor, and sound designer living in Los Angeles. And now he’s releasing music under the name Cole Anyway. “Sitting With Stillness” is his debut, a four-song EP of calming music, a cross between ambient and dream pop. The guitar tone, particularly when the chords bend, reminds me of the tone Angelo Badalamenti has used in some of his works, particularly those performed by Julee Cruise for the Twin Peaks soundtrack. These songs are primarily instrumentals, though two of them do have lyrics. Emoff says “the EP is inspired by the idea of sitting with the feelings that arise...and just letting them be.” They do have a sense of contemplation, I suppose. Emoff performs vocals and all instruments except bass, for which he recruited former Quicksilver Daydream band mate Brett Banks. Another Cole, filmmaker and animator Cole Kush, was recruited to provide visual to match the music, which Emoff is placing on a website. The visuals are a scene of a clearing in a forest in which there is a pair of empty chairs, a small table, and a clock hanging on a nearby tree. The leaves and grass sway in the wind, insects flutter about, and time passes, the hands of the clock slowly rotating around the face. We see the sun dim and brighten, but not much else happens. And so it is with the music. It’s very much moody ambience with a pop rhythm, but not much happens.

DESPAIR JORDAN – Before Your Wings Gave Out (Snappy Little Numbers Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)

Oh, those vocals! So deep and melodious, reminding me of the late Ian Curtis of Joy Division or The Cure’s Robert Smith. And, apparently, the band’s name comes from a joke: What kind of shoes would Robert Smith wear? Answer: Despair Jordans (the band stylize their name as “despAIR jordan”). There’s definitely a retro post-goth-wave edge to the songs here. It’s as if you took the aforementioned bands, mixed them together, then put them into a time machine toward the present day, picking up bits of Interpol along the way, and then adding some of the more modern dream pop and emo, too. The six songs are thickly instrumented, with dueling guitars playing meandering lines against each other. The opening track, “The Architect,” definitely has a deep retro groove going on; it evokes memories of music videos at 80s bars. “Rhapsody in Black” has a lighter feel, less dark and heavy, poppier, but still dreamy, the big vocal dynamics reminding me somewhat of Spanish Love Songs’ Dylan Slocum. I’m less enamored with the slower, longer “Cathedral,” which seems to drag on too long. There are long stretches of instrumentals and a piercing guitar solo that I could do without. And, to be honest, the lead guitar is a little too strong on several of the tracks. If that could be dialed back a bit I think it would improve the otherwise enjoyable songs. Also, maybe cut some of the long instrumentals that appear in a couple of the tracks; the songs would hold my attention a little better if they weren’t quite as long. But I do like the overall sound.

HERZOGOVINA – Emergency (Mandinga Records, mandingarecordsbandcamp.com)

This punkish Brazilian band is somewhat varied in their approach to music, with tracks ranging from the surf-punk of “Ego Arcade” to the darkly angular and experimental “Intoxicac¸a~o” (“Intoxication”). I like the opening track, “Emergency,” which has a post-punk meets math-rock feel. “In Danger” is post-punk but with rhythm that blends the B-52s with ska-like beats. We get the bouncy “Blue Eyes Dancer,” a post-punk meets pop tune, and the retro Manchester dance style song “Road of Joy.” “Fleeting Celebration” is the most straightforward punk, reminding me of a cross between The Dickies and the Dead Kennedys, if you can imagine such a thing. And “Black Cat” and “Rubilitte” have a funky undercurrent, with some strong bass slapping. I like how the songs have a consistency in feel on one hand, all having a strong post-punk aesthetic, but are varied in how that’s implemented, yielding an album that keeps me engaged and listening.

CHRIS GARNEAU – The Kind (chrisgarneau.bandcamp.com)

Quiet, solemn, heartbreaking music from Los Angeles resident Chris Garneau. The arrangements are sparse, focusing primarily on dirge-like piano, with some additional instruments at times, sparingly used. Garneau’s vocals have tremendous range and express the emotions of the songs clearly. Garneau cites Jeff Buckley, Nina Simeone, Nico, and Chan Marshall as influences, and I can hear this in the vocal style that displays a sense of sadness and desperation. The last album that conveyed this level of grief and anguish that I can recall was The Antlers’ 2009 masterpiece, “Hospice.”

“I need a little time now / We can make it better / I need a little space to breath, oh,” begins “Old Code,” a song about separation and isolation in which the space can be heard in the music as well as the lyrics. When Garneau reaches to the upper vocal range, the intense agony comes through in spades. I enjoy the lovely waltz, “Not the Child,” which uses the low register of a harp in the arrangement. This song is about the pain of a breakup and the restraint exerted to prevent acting like a child, being the grownup in the situation. When the cello comes in, it has the feeling of a chamber orchestra playing pop music, and it’s just lovely. One of the most stinging tracks of the album is “Now On,” a pained self-examination of one’s responsibility for the end of a relationship. “I couldn’t tell you while I was bleedin’ / I only held you while I was fleein’” the song begins, acknowledging the too-late realization that the love was real. “No you did not misread our love. / But the things that I buried - / I buried under the shame,” says one verse, to assure the fault does not lie with you, it lies with me. The song, very spare in its instrumentation, concludes with Garneau repeating “I won’t give my love so easy from now on” and “I won’t give my body so easy from now on,” compounding the self-torment the song conveys. “Cradled” uses electronics and overdubbed vocals to create a solemn ethereal atmosphere. It’s a spine-chilling track. “For Celeste” has the feel of a David Lynch version of a 60s pop ballad of endings and leaving. This is a truly breathtaking, heartbreaking album.

NO YEAR – So Long (Inferior Planet, inferiorplanet.bigcartel.com)

No Year is a quartet of Portland music veterans, and “So Long” is the band’s debut release. The five songs on this LP blend post-hardcore, grunge, psych, indie, and even arena rock styles into some extended jams, where the songs range from seven to almost eleven minutes. There’s also an element of San Diego style post hardcore of the late 80s and 90s, as I hear influence from some of John Reis’ bands, like Pitchfork and Rocket From The Crypt. I really like that aspect, and if they had stuck with it, I would love this a lot more than I do, because the arena rock elements spoil things. Like on the opening track, “Sundown,” the last quarter of the track features a big guitar solo with wah pedal, ruining the mood that had been established over the previous five minutes. The same thing happens at the halfway point of “What People Say,” an otherwise exciting track of post hardcore. I’m less enthused with the meandering dream-rock jam, “Minutes On The Hour,” a mostly instrumental piece (vocals don’t come in until halfway though the seven minute track) that goes nowhere, and seems overly self-indulgent. Once the vocals come in, the piece does pick up and improve somewhat, gaining a mathish edge. “Welcome Home” has a pretty awesome melody and intensity, but it does drag on too long and I think if the tempo were a bit quicker it would sound less sludgy, and it could do without the metal jammage toward the end. “So Long” closes things following the same pattern, with wankiness starting at the halfway point, this time in more of an avant-garde jam that just goes off into noise. Another aspect that the band needs to work on is shortening the songs. The shortest is that opening track, at 6:45. Three of them are ten minutes or longer. Five tracks at forty-six minutes? Wow. The songs need some serious editing. Cut them down to size, cut out the wanky solos and arena rock, and leave the core and this would be an excellent debut EP. As it is, it leaves me with mixed feelings. It’s got some good ideas that need to be reworked.

RATS ON RAFTS – Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs A Net Of Rabbit Paths (Fire Records, www.firerecords.com)

Our fearless editor says this sounds like Wire covering The Fall, and that’s a pretty succinct and apt description. Dutch band Rats on Rafts very much has a post-punk sound, and this album could have been released forty years ago. There are musical themes that run through the record, and the band does say that it was conceived as a concept album, though it took a five-year journey to complete. I love the creativity that’s gone into this, but it’s likely not going to be for everyone – it’s not a pop record, that’s for sure, and it’s not background music. This is music that demands your attention. For example, “Second Born Child” is a track with a martial beat, snare drums rat-a-tat-tatting, a bass drum pounding the steady beat of war, thunder rumbling ominously, vocals repeatedly intoning the name “Olivia” as a voice comes over the loudspeaker shouting propaganda and a piano plinks out some mournful notes. This is the sort of music we used to relish playing at Chicago’s freeform non-mainstream radio station, WZRD. “Tokyo Music Experience,” has the feel of early ‘80s UK post-punk with a strong bass line and high-pitched guitars picking out a repeating line. “Another Year” is a piano that seems slightly out of tune, playing chords in unison with a processed guitar or synth of some kind, and multi-tracked spoken word. The result is moody and effective, more sonic art than song. Speaking of moody, “Where Is My Dream?” is more like “Get Me Out of This Nightmare!” The song has jangly guitars, emphatic vocals, and mysterious backing vocals, as we hear what sound like screams buried in the background toward the end of the track and all hell breaks loose. I love listening to new music and modern sounds, but sometimes I do miss the intense period of musical creativity and diversity that was the late 70s though the mid 80s. If you do, too, you’re going to want to get on this.

WALTZER – Time Traveler (Side Hustle Records, sidehustlerecords.bandcamp.com)

This is a fascinating debut LP from Chicago’s Waltzer. For the most part, Waltzer blends retro 50s and 60s pop music with an intense dreaminess and lo-fi garage aesthetic. The short introductory instrumental, “Orbit #9,” is bright and mysterious, setting the mood for what’s to come. “I Don’t Wanna Die” sounds like one of those tragedy songs from the 50s and 60s, but played through a fuzzed out dreamy filter. “Lantern” gets a little darker and bluesy, smoky rock and roll with a retro lounge edge, still through the fuzzy filter. I love the short track, “The Burning.” Intense reverb, simple guitar chords, and soaring vocals give this track the feel of something unreal, something between dreaming and wakefulness. “Ugly Misfits” is a cool one, sounding like early Beatles mixed with modern pop and sent through the same haze as the other tracks. The closing track, “Destroyer,” makes interesting use of phrasing from the song “Please Mr. Postman,” but turning the whole thing into a much more soulful, pleading ballad. Two of the tracks are completely different from the others. The title track has a cleaner mix and is much more of a lovely pop ballad, featuring piano as the primary instrument accompanying the beautiful vocals. The song is a sad waltz about the journeys we all take through life. And “Eugene” is a modern acid-grunge rocker with a dreamy feel. This is a very promising debut. And bonus! Waltzer isn’t just a band, it’s an online TV show! It’s something to check out while “regular” TV is still mostly on hiatus.


CAMP TRASH – Downtiming (Count Your Lucky Stars,cylsrecords.com)

Camp Trash is a new band hailing from the Tampa-St. Pete suburb of Bradenton. This four-song EP blends smooth pop melodies with a guitar-fueled indie aesthetic. The lead vocals are relaxed and casual, sounding more like someone singing for himself, rather than for a recording. The instrumentals are light and easy, while the melodies feel like they could have written for alternative pop radio in the 90s. This is pleasant enough music, though I wish there was a bit of variety. The tempos are the same across all four songs, and there isn’t a huge amount of dynamic range. Perhaps expanding their song-writing horizons will come with age and experience.

FOX FACE – End of Man (DirtNapRecs.com)

Milwaukee’s Fox Face present’s their sophomore LP, the follow-up to 2017’s “Spoil + Destroy.” The Midwesterners play tough, noisy, punked up garage rock and roll. They lean toward the heavier and more chaotic side of the equation, too, with fuzzed bass, snarling guitars, and lo-fi recording. The dissonance of the instrumentals contrasts starkly with the strong clear vocals, and the whole thing has a dark, brooding feel. And perhaps that’s a problem I have with what could have been a pretty good record. The whole thing has the same sound. I like noisy and I like garage rock and roll, but this is maybe a little too dissonant for my tastes, sometimes coming across as being slightly out of tune. This one is maybe better in smaller doses.

HEATHCLIFF – Stay Posi (SBÄM, shop.sbam.rocks)

When I first started playing the opening track from this new LP from the Munich band I thought, “ugh, this is going to be a stinker.” The very start of this record, in the track, “Me, Myself & I Are Two Sometimes,” is a rock-reggae wank fest that made me want to stop listening immediately. But I’m glad I didn’t. Forty-five seconds in, the whole mood changes into impossibly speedy melodic skate punk, sounding like someone played a Bad Religion LP on 45rpm instead of 33 1/3. Harmonized vocals and super-tight instrumentals are primary features, along with metallic tinged guitar licks. The first few tracks are great like this, and then songs begin to evolve. As we approach the midpoint, the tempo slows a bit and the licks get more and more metal, with the notable exception of the skate punk/hardcore blend of “Captain’s Call,” which goes from speedy and tight to slow and sludgy. Things take a sharp turn with “The Trooper,” a reggae-rock and ska flavored metal tune (I say flavored because it has ska rhythms, but no horns). The devolvement continues with a slew of slower tracks that sound more like 2000s “emo” alternative rock and “pop punk” mixed with metallic punk. The ending track is an acoustic one, “Who Told You,” that seems a strange choice. It’s soft rock sounds to close a hard rock album? Honestly, I wish the band stuck with the well-executed formula of the front half of the album. The back half left me cold.

LUXURIOUS FAUX FURS – Like a Real Shadow (mandingarecords.bandcamp.com)

Luxurious Faux Furs are a duo made up of drummer/vocalist Jessica Melain and guitarist/vocalist Josh Lee Hooker. Originally from New York City, the pair relocated to New Orleans, a more fitting locale for their brand of bluesy roots rock and roll. The music is raw and primitive, sounding like it just emerged from the bayou, muddy water oozing downward along with the notes. Some of the tracks are better than others, with some coming off as a little too limited and repetitive, like “Sign of Judgment,” which is primarily a guitar drone that remains unchanged for the bulk of the track. But tracks like “Joe Bird” Don’t Throw Your,” and “Home Cookin” have a primal energy to them. “Seat In The Kingdom” is a little different from most of the tracks, with a quicker pace, the blues-rock supplanted by a garage-like gospel sound, while “Send Me Your Pillow” has a softer pop sound. Interesting effort, this is something different.

NASDAQ – Young Professional (nasdaq89.bandcamp.com)

Dow Jones (guitar/vox), J.P. Morgan (organ), and Goldman Sacks (drums) are the trio of elite professionals who gave up the world of high finance to get in on the scam of rock and roll. This four-song debut EP, though, reveals their hearts are never far from power and self-enrichment. Their stripped-down garage rock sound mixed with some early Devo-like manic melodies is enough to drive one straight to the ATM to empty your account and invest in the band. The title track opens with a news analyst speaking, “It was rock and roll, you could see money driving everything. A lot of cocaine around, a lot of party hearty every night.” This, then, is the NASDAQ anthem to excess. “Profit Margin” is a bit slower and less manic, but no less melodic, and lets us know that the band “do it all for the profit margin.” We also get a “Bailout,” like every good Wall Street firm wants, in the form of a driving instrumental. And we close with “Puppet Regime,” an ode to the relationship between money and government that reminds me of a more sparsely instrumented Dead Kennedys song, both in feel and sentiment. Invest in this music.

STEVE DRIZOS – Axiom (cavitysearchrecords.com)

Steve Drizos is mainly a guy in the background. He’s a touring musician, most recently playing drums with Jerry Joseph and the Jackmorons. He runs his own studio, which he calls The Panther, where he’s engineered and produced numerous recordings for other bands. Drizos originally built the studio to record his own music, and now he’s finally released some in the form of this LP. The title track opens the LP, a lush instrumental with huge range. It starts out quietly, with synths and plucked guitar notes, and slowly builds. Philosophical spoken word recording clips are inserted at various places, and the music is sweet and gorgeous, with the melody moving between instruments, the bass even taking it for a time. It’s nice, but at times reminds me a bit of Coldplay. The other songs have vocals, Drizos’ voice reminding me a bit of a less gritty Bob Dylan. Musically, the songs are mostly mild and melodic, slickly produced, maybe over produced. The eight songs come off sounding very radio friendly for those stations that specialize in adult contemporary music for people who’ve aged out of alternative. Strings mix with synths, acoustic and electric guitars play with each other, with songs thickly arranged. “Covering Your Eyes” mixes in some influence from progressive rock icons Genesis, with snippets reminding me of their hit “Follow You Follow Me,” even including organ notes to fill out the background. I’ll say, the record is well made, and if you’re a fan of this sort of softish rock music, you’ll probably enjoy it. I’m planning to recommend it to a couple of friends who are big fans of this sort of stuff, but it doesn’t do much for me and I’m guessing it won’t for most Jersey Beat readers.

THE STAN LAURELS – There Is No Light Without The Dark (bigstirrecords.com)

The Stan Laurels are the sole proprietorship of Austin, Texas based John Lathrop. He single-handedly writes the songs, plays the instruments, sings, and records his music. Some songs are big and dreamy, others are psych-tinged, some are smooth and lounge-like, and others are a bit more raucous. Some songs contain multiple feels, like “Tomorrow,” a song that mostly glides serenely, but slowly builds, guitars filling in with dreamy fuzz especially on the brilliant shiny bridge. “Red-Handed Puppet” is an interesting blend of indie pop and Beach Boys-like pop, in the vocal melody and in the strong backbeat that gives it a 60s pop sound. The closing track, “This Is Your Life,” has edgier guitars than any of the others, by far, though the vocals still glide placidly. It presents an interesting contrast. There are two lovely contemplative instrumentals, “Emotions I” and “Emotions II,” which have some vinyl record static at the start and end. These two pieces use synths, and set quite a mood. As does the LP as a whole.

STILL CORNERS – The Last Exit (wreckinglightrecords.com)

London pop duo Still Corners toured constantly before everything was forced to stop due to the pandemic. Besides halting all tours, video shoots and even the album release were placed on hold. But with that extra time came an opportunity to take new inspiration and write new songs, and the album went through a transformation to what we now hear. I’ve seen them described as a dream pop band, and though the songs have a hazy feel to them, they don’t have the same thick electronic fuzz of most modern dream pop. The instruments have a clear tone, but there’s a lugubriousness to these songs, a sense of sadness and loneliness. They’ve also been described as having the sound of the desert, and though there are no deserts within a thousand miles of London that I’m aware of, this is a reasonably apt description. The songs do have the sense of driving through dusty lonely towns and on open roads through desolate landscapes. And there are touches of Western sounds in the acoustic guitars and in the twang of the electric guitars. The title track that opens the album even refers to being far from home, driving toward no particular destination, through the darkness, in the middle of the desert. The music reminds me of a folk-like version of an Angelo Badalamente tune written for a David Lynch project. It has a lightly retro pop tone, with layer upon layer of sadness heaped on, even as the tempo and beat suggest otherwise. “Crying” is filled with reverb, and has an even more mournful sound, with bass played by synths that sound so sad that they’re wobbling, and the whistle that punctuates the melody is pure melancholy. “Bad Town” uses a slide on an acoustic guitar during the song’s intro to double down on the dusty feeling, then takes it a step further by using a howling coyote in the background of the song. That might be a little over the top, but it’s effective in setting a mood. These songs are hushed and yield a sense of isolation, and this was an intentional part of the rewriting of the album. The sense of solitude from the quarantine is something they wanted to embody in the songs, and they succeeded.

THE STRUGGLE – "Tension Rising" b/w "It’s Not Too Late" – (piratespressrecords.com)

UK Oi/street punk band The Struggle are calling it quits, after several productive years that saw them tour all over Europe and appear at some major festivals. As a parting shot, though, they’re teaming up with longtime label Pirates Press Records for this benefit 7” single, proceeds from which will go to BOOM, a grassroots music venue in Leeds, UK that has been hit hard by pandemic shutdowns and is on the brink of permanent closure. BOOM has been host to many new bands as well as established artists, primarily in the punk and metal genres. The two songs of this final release from the band are strong examples of modern working class punk rock, with gruff, raspy lead vocals, big emphatic gang vocals, and straightforward yet powerful instrumentals. Fans of the genre will surely be sad to see The Struggle ending their run, but this is a nice parting gift.

TRIPLE FAST ACTION – Cattlemen Don’t (forgeagainrecords.com)

Triple Fast Action was a Chicago indie/alternative band active at the height of alternative music in the 1990s. It was formed by Wes Kidd and Brian St. Clair, who had been band mates in punk band Rights of the Accused. “Cattlemen Don’t” was the band’s second and final full-length LP. Originally released in 1997, the band is rereleasing what was originally a CD only release as a double LP, and included are nine previously unreleased tracks, a full album’s worth of newly released material. And while the band was from Chicago, a lot of the songs on this record sound more like they came from Seattle, with that heavy and hard grunge sound. Hell, the record’s cover even has an image of the Space Needle all lit up. The album has a blend of grunge and pop that’s different and refreshing, even after all these years.

The album opens strongly with “Pure,” a fast and heavy grunge track that has some interesting Beatles-like high-pitched vocal interjections and poppy harmonization. “Heroes” blends grunge with Cheap Trick style glam pop in a way that’s quite unique. And I like the dissonance, jangle, feedback, and choral harmonies of “Rescue.” It sounds like the dueling guitars in some places are purposely slightly out of tune, and it’s a cool, eerie effect, especially when paired with the interjections of feedback. “I’m Ready” has some awesome surf-garage guitar injections into the grunge mix. “No Doubt” is another one that adds feedback and other creative and odd touches that make it one of the better grunge songs you’re liable to hear.

Some of the tracks are ballads, something to expect in an album this long (the original 14 song CD clocked in at 50 minutes, and this new release expands that to an hour and 22 minutes), but they mostly still fall into the grunge genre, with sections that get loud and heavy. “Sent Then Straight,” though, remaining pretty much in an arena rock style until the end, at which time, what?? A brass band comes in! It gives an otherwise dull track a brilliant ending. “Yeah” follows as another more sedate ballad, recorded with acoustic guitar to the fore and lo-fi electric guitar in the back, giving it a different sort of sound. The closing track of the original LP, “Bearer of Bad News,” too, sounds more like an arena anthem than anything alternative, and is one of my least favorite of the album.

But what of the unreleased tracks? Do they stack up well to the rest of the LP? Well, yes and no; it’s a mix. None of the songs are quite as heavy and grungy as the rest, nor do they have the same kind of unique arrangements or genre mixing. But I do like “I Want to Know,” which has a great sound that should be familiar to listeners of some of the modern emotionally packed pop punk. “Wes’ Song” has wonderfully fuzzed out guitars kind of like The Jesus and Mary Chain juxtaposed against a simply song consisting of descending scales and ethnic sounding guitars. “Summer Song” is engineered to sound like a scratchy old record with a lo-fi repeating guitar sound underneath, and the dry drum sound is great. Overall, the new release is a nice package for a band that never quite got the recognition they deserved back in the day.

SHIP THIEVES/RECONCILER – Split (a-frecords.com)

Two bands give us a new song each, of powerful, thick punk music. Ship Thieves is a project featuring Hot Water Music’s Chris Wollard, while Reconciler includes ex-Less Than Jake member Derron Nuhfer. The Ship Thieves track, “Nothing Now,” is burly stuff, the mighty bass line blending with grinding buzzy guitars to drive the song. Reconciler’s “Push To Break” is less beefy, but more wiry and agile, moving swiftly between thinner and thicker arrangements and more melodic pop punk content. Both tracks are great, and even better is that a portion of the proceeds from sales of the 7” will be donated to Save Our Stages, an organization working to secure assistance for live music venues across the country in the face of pandemic-related closures.


DIVIDED HEAVEN – Baby In The Band (Bearded Punk Records, www.beardedpunk.com)

Hot on the heels of last fall’s politically charged single, “They Poisoned Our Fathers,” Divided Heaven is back with a new one. Divided Heaven is the sometimes solo, sometimes full-band project of singer-songwriter Jeff Berman, and “Baby In The Band” eschews the full-band for a more stripped down solo approach, primarily featuring acoustic guitar and piano, with some flutes, ethereal backing vocals, plus a delicate electric guitar solo. The song seems to be about the loss of a close friend, and the whole thing is beautifully understated. The song opens and closes with the lyric “He was the kind of guy you needed when you needed a friend / 3000 miles from where I stand,” speaking to separation, whether through distance or time. Other lyrics speak to going separate ways and finding their own paths, but also of the pain of loss. Pensive and touching, Divided Heaven shows a true range of emotions in this most recent release.

SLOW DRAW – "Pessimist" b/w "Glorious" (Paper Street Cuts, www.paperstreetcuts.com / GTG Records, www.gtgrecords.com)

Guitarist/vocalist Todd Allen says of this band, “The idea of Slow Draw formed over the last couple of years with songs that didn’t seem to fit what Squarecrow (Todd’s other band) was or is.” And the assessment is spot on – the two songs on this formal debut single sound nothing like Squarecrow. Todd pulled Squarecrow band mate Dan in to help him tidy up some songs he had written, and the resulting recordings were placed onto a four-way split EP that came out last summer. The band was then filled out with Manny and Dylan, and this single contains the first full-band songs where all the members were involved in the writing and arranging. The title track is a bright, briskly paced Americana tune that, despite the title, speaks of hope. The chugga-chugga rhythms feel like a train rolling through, and the guitar tone provides a startlingly lonesome sound. It reminds me of a countrified Western Settings. “Glorious” is, counterintuitively, a darker sounding track with a striding mid-tempo rhythm. The sound is bigger, still with an Americana edge. This is a promising beginning.


HANGTIME – Destroy / Invasion (Say-10 Records, www.say-10.com)

Say-10 joins together the Toronto band’s 2019 and 2020 EP\s for one full-length release. The front half is “Destroy!,” the EP that came out this past fall via Cats Paw Records, while “Invasion” was released nearly two years ago by Punk & Disorderly Records. If you’re a fan of bouncy, crunchy melodic pop punk with sweet melodies and harmonies but with strong punk edge, you’ll enjoy this. They’re sort of like Masked Intruder, but without the criminal shtick. The band is tight, the vocals and melodies tuneful, and the guitars crunchy. Sugary harmonies are juxtaposed against lyrics of love and loss, like all the best pop punk. If I have one complaint is that all the songs tend to be played at the same moderate tempo, with little dynamic range. This tends to cause songs to blend into each other. But they’re so well done, that hardly matters.

MODERN HUT – I Don't Want To Get Adjusted To This World (Don Giovanni Records, www.dongiovannirecords.com)

Don Giovanni boss Joe Steinhardt once again gets up from behind his executive desk and goes into the studio for his sophomore LP as Modern Hut. This time out, while there are still the acoustic songs, there’s more. And joining Steinhardt again is Marissa Paternoster of The Screaming Females, contributing vocals, guitars, and co-producing the album. The LP is very understated, mostly acoustic, singer-songwriter fare. Steinhardt’s deadpan vocals are complemented by Paternoster’s more colorful singing. I say “mostly acoustic,” because it’s not entirely. There’s an electric organ, too, which adds tremendously. Acoustic isn’t for everyone, I know. But I like the relaxed feeling of this album, like it’s a couple of friends sitting in a living room singing together, rather than a band making an album. Some favorite parts of the album? I like how the opening track, “In Amongst The Millions,” transforms from a free-flowing folk tune to a gospel feel with a martial rhythm. I love the darkness and pain of “Ask The Dust,” with Steinhardt’s plain singing deeply contrasted with Paternoster’s intensity pulled into the background. “Out of Touch” is a quirky little nerd-pop tune about ennui to the extreme. “Silly and Destructive” is a proper pop tune with full band for sections, alternating with dark and loose acoustic guitar and drums. The title track is actually a cover. It’s a gospel song written by Sanford J. Massengale and recorded by both The Looper Trio and Iris Dement. Steinhardt says, “The sentiment of the song informed a lot of the album,” and it fits with some of the darker themes. My interpretation of the lyrics is of someone who has grown weary of the world and wants release. “Lord, I’m growing old and weary / And there’s no place that feels like home / Savior come, my soul to ferry / To where I never more may roam.” The version on the album has the feeling of a song that would be played over the closing credits of a depressing film with a downer of an ending, and I say that as a compliment. If you’re looking for calm understated music that will make your own neuroses seem tame, this is the album for you. It’s somehow comforting.

STIFF RICHARDS – State of Mind (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)

YEAH! This LP goes from 0 to 60 in 0.1 seconds flat and doesn’t let up for a second. Stiff Richards fuses rock and roll, punk, and garage into a raucous manic frenzy of music. The closest thing I can think of is the “hot rock” of The Whips, from Washington DC. But where that band tended more toward the rock and roll side, Stiff Richards is leans more into the punk side. Maybe another apt comparison would be the short-lived Denton, Texas band, Distresser. Fast, intense, hard and edgy, this is a record that demands that you get up and jump around like a mad person. The attitude drips from the vocals, and the guitars wail and scream. Even the slower songs rock out big time. It’s hard to pick a favorite track or two because every damn one of them is great. 2021 is just getting started and we already have a contender for the top releases of the year list!

TASAJO – EP1 (tasajx.bandcamp.com)

Tasajo is a cut of beef, typically from the Central Valley of Oaxaca in Oaxaca state in Mexico. It is similar to pork jerky and is often made with organ meat including that of the head and back, but also can be made with flank steak. Tasajo is also a new band from Tijuana, featuring Mr. Cap from DFMK, Matt Camaleon (who has played drums in various TJ punk bands,) plus Guaseadowsky on guitar and Dan Reveles on bass. This band sounds nothing like TJ punk bands, eschewing the harder edged rock and roll and hardcore elements for more of an 80s emo post-punk vibe mixed with modern alternative rock. There are some guitar solos pulling in a bit of arena rock vibe, too, that I could have done without, but I do like the melodious edgy music the quartet provide, with Cap’s vocals emphatically belted out, loudly spoken (in Spanish) rather than sung, just like many of the DC emo bands of the 80s. Lyrically the songs are emo in content, as well. The track, “Fvga,” or “Escape,” speaks our inability to escape bad memories, how they leave a permanent stain on us and leave a bad taste. “TNT” is about shutting off our feelings to avoid the pain of the world, likened to dynamite. “Harto” (“Fed Up”) is a bass-heavy, almost grunge-like version of post punk with Cap demanding to be left alone, he’s sick of you, sick of your talking all the time. “Cínico” (“Cynical”) is also dominated by bass, but in more of a hard rock way and speaks to the fakeness and untrustworthiness of everyone. “Maclovio” closes the EP with a cooler sound, organ chords providing a backdrop to dark acoustic guitar. The song has a completely different feel from the rest of the record, with loads of reverb and subtle backing vocals. It has a pleading sort of feel to it. To my ears it’s less successful than the other tracks, which I think carry a pretty good punch, speaking as a fan of the mid to late 80s Dischord Records sound.

VARIOUS – Get Stoked! Vol. 1 (Say-10 Records, www.say-10.com)

To combat the high prices of limited lathe cut records, Say-10 has decided to try doing these in bundles and showcasing new songs by some of their artists. The first bundle comes with three records, from Decide By Friday, Pedals On Our Pirate Ships, and The Eradicator. Decide By Friday gives us two tracks, “Moving On” and “Light in August,” the latter being a cover of a song by Dirty Tactics. The band play fairly standard alternative rock with an emo-ish aesthetic, alternating jangly guitars and big broad epic sounds. It’s fine, but the cover does lack the power and strength of the original. Decide By Friday play the song at a slower tempo than Dirty Tactics, the vocals are smooth instead of gritty, and the guitars don’t have the same sense of urgency.

Pedals On Our Pirate Ships also give two tracks, an original (“Employer/Employee”) and a cover (Slutever’s “White Flag”). The A-side is a raucous pop punk track about the master/slave relationship involved in working. It’s a simple song, but its rowdy feel is infectious. Slutever’s original version of “White Flag” blends bright garage punk guitars with smooth, understated poppy vocals, while POOP’s cover trades the garage punk for more of a hard rock edge, and the vocals are edgier, too. It’s still an effective fun version, but I think I prefer the original.

The Eradicator’s portion of this bundle includes four tracks, one original and three covers, sort of. This entry is the most boisterous and hilarious of the three. The original is “Tennis World,” and it’s a crazy, noisy, driving track that I love. The mysterious solo artist known as The Grandfather of Squash recorded a COVID-era acoustic ballad called “Don’t Forget About Us” and in the hands of The Eradicator, it becomes “Don’t Forget About ‘Em,” the ‘em referring to grandpas, and admonishing everyone to be careful so as not to send them into hospitals in the midst of the pandemic. The song is touching and hilarious, and this version rocks. A little background: The Eradicator is a mysterious masked man from Chicago based on the old “Kids in the Hall” TV show sketch “The Eradicator,” about a masked squash player. So, Grandfather of Squash is an Eradicator-related artist, so is it really a “cover?” It’s still funny, and explains “Tennis World.” “Saully” is a cover of the song by Shehehe about a wonderful dog that passed away. The cover here is looser than the original, but retains the energy. “Don’t Touch Me” is next, and is hilarious. Brak’s original song about respecting personal space was simply a mouthed “beat box” imitation accompanying someone shouting “Hey, don’t touch me” over and over. The Eradicator’s version trades the beat box for sparkly 80s synths, but the hilarious vocal inflections are retained.

Overall the bundle is worthwhile, but if the three lathe cut records were available separately, I might skip Decide By Friday’s offering.

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THE DIRTY NIL – Fuck Art (Dine Alone Records, www.dinealonerecords.com)

The boys are back! After taking nearly a decade as a band to release their first full-length LP, the boys from Dundas, Ontario are firing on all cylinders and give us their third album. The sentiment of the title refers to just having a good time and partying, the primary rule of rock and roll. And The Dirty Nil deliver on this with the 11 new songs here. It’s been interesting to see the progression, as I’ve been following the band for the past several years. They’ve slowly been maturing their sound, moving away from their more raucous punk-like roots toward a more refined and powerful alternative rock and roll sound. Luke Bentham continues to demonstrate vocal mastery, his voice strong and soaring, with a smoothness that’s gotten better with each LP. Ross Miller’s bass lines provide a rock solid foundation, lifting the band up to new heights. And Kyle Fisher’s drumming is more than mere time keeping; it provides the perfect dynamic range, from quiet and delicate to furious pounding. Even the production quality is smoother and more mature sounding, more controlled than on past efforts.

The album opens with the song that was the lead single, “Doom Boy,” a love song for rock and rollers that invites you to hold hands and listen to Slayer in the back seat of a Dodge Caravan. The marketing of the song was hilarious, as the band had various celebrities create Cameo videos reacting to the song, including Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath, David “The Hoff” Hasselhoff, Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick, and the ultimate: Slayer’s Paul Bostaph! While the song references the metal lifestyle and includes some metallic licks, the song isn’t really metal. It does rock, but in a smoother alternative rock way. It’s a fun, tongue-in-cheek tune. And lest you think the band has left real rocking, “Ride Or Die” is a powerful old school hard rock track, metallic licks abounding.

Some of the tracks channel the grunge sound of the 90s to differing degrees. “Blunt Force Concussion” starts out as a gorgeous indie rock tune, and quickly builds. The dynamic range on display is impressive, going from smooth and calm to epic and raucous, with gigantic gang vocals. And “Hang Your Moon” starts out kind of grunge-like, but gets pretty metallic at points, and turns to big dream-pop toward the end. Talk about dynamic range!

“Done With Drugs” is the band’s message of social responsibility, appearing to be an autobiographical story about growing up and taking responsibility for your own life, realizing the damage drugs can do, even in the absence of a problem with addiction. There’s one line in particular that references an observation that “no one at the after party seems to be happy.” Musically the song is another great alternative rock song, but it’s got some big jangly guitars. In a way, this song is a companion piece to one from the previous LP, “Master Volume.” “I Don’t Want the Phone Call” was a pleading number about wanting a friend with a problem to clean up, rather than die, where “Done With Drugs” is about self-actualization.

The Nil leave the best for last though, as the final two tracks are my favorites. “The Guy Who Stole My Bike” is more than a rock and roll ballad about a simple theft; it’s a warning to everyone who does wrong to our narrator/singer. It starts out tongue-in-cheek, it seems, with a wish to the bike thief that “I hope the brakes don’t seize / when you’re riding down the hill to hell.” But it goes on to speak about “the ones who left my trust / out in the rain to accumulate rust,” and the anger this causes. Some of the pain is self-inflicted, though, as Bentham sings during a gorgeous acoustic break, “To the ones I loved and left / With an axe to grind with me in the present tense / It wasn’t you baby, you were swell / But I’ve got a history of pissing in the wishing well.” I love the melodic lines, and the guitar solo in the back half is epic. The closer, “One More and the Bill” is a natural for closing a set or LP. It’s huge. I’ve seen the band perform this one on some live streams, and I love the way Bentham bends the chords by swinging the guitar back and forth. The title refers, I think, to getting one more drink and then closing out your tab, then going on to deal with life. “I’ve got a lot of things to drink about dream about and run away from,” says the chorus. One verse says, “Gonna smash my TV, smash my phone / Leave politics alone / Go outside for awhile / One more and the bill.” Yes, we all have our lives to lead, but sometimes it’s good to take a break from that and breathe.

I have to say, every time The Dirty Nil have come out with a new LP I’ve been a little apprehensive. I loved the punkish raucousness of the early EPs. But even as the band has evolved, they’ve maintained and upped the quality of their output. But fuck art. Let’s just have fun.

GRIM DEEDS – Infernal Satanic Pop Punk Blasphemy From Hell (grimdeeds.bandcamp.com)

Grim Deeds surprised us all just before Christmas with the gift of a new full-length LP. The 23 songs were all recorded between August and November of 2020, and for the first time Dustin played all the instruments (including drums), and he acquits himself well. Though multi-tracked (by necessity, of course), the arrangements are tight. Ramones-core is, of course, the primary genre on display here, with its simple and predictable yet fun sound and chord progressions. “Just Be Kind” is one such tune. “Just Google It” is another, a song with the chords of “Blitzkrieg Bop” and lyrics that celebrate the ability to find everything you desire though the internet’s most popular search engine. “Contrary” is pretty straightforward Ramones-core, too, with just a few chords, big buzzy guitars, and a steady beat.

While Ramones-core is great, some of the songs eschew that style for a more jangly pop sound. Such is the case with the love song, “Can’t Get Enough,” a song about separation anxiety. “Your Love” is another, with a clean clear guitar tone and harmonized multi-tracked vocals. And “Short Story Long” is a further example, this time with a mix of pop punk and a tinge of Americana feel to it. So, too, is “Let It Ride,” with an Americana sound mixed with its pop punk. And I really like “Worst Case Scenario,” a tune with a 60s pop vibe. “When You’re Not Home” reminds me of Mr. T Experience, somewhat. It’s got a Ramones-core guitar riff, but the melody is very Dr. Frank-like, and it’s one of my favorites of the album. An additional favorite is the penultimate “You Are The One,” a lighter tune with some great harmonized vocals. It’s, of course, another love song.

A couple of the songs are more classic punk than pop. “Toxic Positivity” is less Ramones-core and more melodic hardcore punk, speedy, bass heavy, and with dark chord changes. “Time” falls into this category, too, speedy and harder edged. And one is a funny cow-punk song, “Don’t Make Me Think.” It’s got plenty of twang from the “git-tar” and lyrics about wanting to remain mindless.

Great tongue-in-cheek humor fills many of the songs. 90s nostalgia is satirized in the acoustic “Neo Geo,” a song about pining for the 90s video game system. “JNCO Jeans,” too, remembers the past, this time everyone’s favorite ridiculously large legged jeans. Best line of the song: “All the Korn fans will know what I mean.” “Costco” is a song we can all identify with, an acoustic ode to the warehouse store we all hate to have to go to, with its filled parking lots, crowded aisles, and giant shopping carts. “Joe Don’t Listen to Judas Priest” is a punker of a tune about the titular character’s music-listening habits, favoring punk bands over metal. The closer, “At My Funeral,” is a hilarious song about the wild party said funeral will turn into, including fun for everyone, food and drink galore, everyone getting high and laughing and crying. Also, the open casket will be repurposed as a urinal. Sounds like a true punker’s last stand.

These songs won’t change the world. But they make it more fun.

JASON PAUL AND THE KNOW IT ALLS – Alien or Martian (jasonpaulmusic.bandcamp.com)

Jason Paul is part of the tight knit music community in San Pedro, California, and it shows. Many of the songs on this latest full-length LP from the band have that relaxed psychedelic tinged pop punk sound that Pedro bands are known for. But it’s interesting that this LP sounds like more like a compilation LP mixing EPs and singles from different bands together, as there are songs that don’t fit this mold, and indeed, don’t sound anything like the rest of the songs. I like the looseness of the tracks, and they mostly feel like they’re from another era, mixing 60s psych and protest music with mid 80s post hardcore. Listen to the first song of the LP, “Tongues in Knots,” to hear what I mean. It sounds a little like mid 80s music coming from Washington, D.C., but also vaguely retro. The lyrics are sung in multi-tracked unison, Paul belting out lyrics that seem to speak to the difficulty of clear communication and getting across meanings to others. Given the sound clip at the start (“Looks like it might be the year of the ballot or the bullet”), it could also reference the communication gap that’s part of the great divide in our society. I like the expansive feel of “Go For Broke,” the big open sound seeming to echo the sentiment in the poetic lyrics about breaking away from the cages of our daily existence and living as explorers (“I’ve searched the country / I slept where I fell / Oh, I live on the far edge”). I like the contrast, too, between the verses and chorus, the latter of which is huge sounding, like the open possibilities we all have before us. “All In All” has a nice retro rock and roll twang in the guitars that also jangle with that retro psych pop sound. It’s a favorite, and my interpretation of the lyrics is that the song is about staying focused on your goals and working slowly and steadily toward their fulfillment. Trying too much too fast risks burning out and failing. “Slow and steady wins the race / Looking behind will lose your place,” Paul sings, and then as the song picks up, he warns “Most stars fade out / Before they crash / Most tears get wiped / Before they fall.”

One of the songs that’s part of this “separate EP from a separate band” is “Giving Up Our Names, a simple song with acoustic guitar that also includes a heavily reverbed piano and string synth that come in toward the end. It’s got a quietly sad sound to it that’s appealing. “We Took The Risk” trades in the retro psych for more of a modern indie pop-rock sound, and there are hints of twang in the guitars. And the closing track, “Trust,” has sparkling keyboards and acoustic guitar, with heavily reverb on the vocals. It’s a more pure 60s psych pop song that eschews the post-punkness of some of the other tracks. I like the sound the Know It Alls have, and those these outliers are nice songs, having them appear on the album makes it feel a little disjointed and less cohesive than it otherwise would be.


ROBERTO BETTEGA (www.robertob.bandcamp.com)

Roberto Bettega is a former member of The Harmonica Lewinskies, a band Jersey Beat readers should be somewhat familiar with. This solo effort from Bettega features an eclectic collection of songs ranging from Beatles-esque power pop to bossa nova styling a la Antonio Carlos Jobim. The six-song EP opens with “My Name Is Dan,” an ode to former HL band mate Dan McLane, who sadly died a few years ago under tragic circumstances. It’s a wistful, sparkly power pop tune, and the lyrics speak to how they wrote songs together, and how Rob “found somebody just like me who grabs you by the teeth and won’t let go.” Even through the cheesy jokes remembered, like in the chorus, where Bettega sings, “I try to be frank / But my name is Dan,” you can feel the closeness of the relationship in the song. I really like the mathish rhythms of “Punk Song,” a track that isn’t really punk. It features saxophones, has a solid impenetrable wall of music, and uses a 5/4 beat that’s ever off-kilter. “Take It Easy” has an airy breezy feel that appeals me. “Do It Together” takes Beatles-like pop and doses it with some psychedelics, yielding a colorfully twisted tune that even quotes the Fab Four’s “With a Little Help From My Friends” when it uses the lyrics, “Do you need anybody…” and “Could it be anybody…” in one verse. The other two tracks take cues from very far south of the border, featuring the sounds of the samba and bossa nova. “Tangled Up” is a lovely light Latin pop tune, with a lonely trumpet intro to the song before the guitar takes over. Think 90s indie pop crossed with Brazilian pop singer João Gilberto. And the closer, “Baby You’re a Friend of Mine,” reminds me of the Soundtrack to the film “Brazil” crossed with 50s Latin pop; it’s just adorable. Solid, enjoyable effort here.

DOLLARS FOR DEADBEATS – Was It a Good Night? (Say-10 Records and Skateboards, www.say-10.com)

This is big sounding music from Germany that borders between alternative and punk rock. The songs are big and tuneful, well played with full sounding arrangements. Every song sounds like an epic. But the problem is it’s every song, for the most part. Same tempo, same feel. The one outlier, the one track different from the others, is the acoustic “White Roses,” a song with a Latin flair to it. But even then, though the instrumentals are very different, the vocals are very much the same as on every track, though laid bare here without a full band. As a result, there are imperfections in intonation that stand out and mar an otherwise pretty song. That said, the poppy “Gondola Rules” is a fun track, a little bit faster than the others, and the rapid-fire vocals remind me a bit of City Mouse’s Miski Dee. But even here, there’s no dynamic range to it. “Denver to Boston” has undertones of Americana in the rhythm and melody, though the guitars end up sounding big and epic like all the other tracks, and the vocal intonation problems appear here again. “Bathroom Tiles” is a weird name for a song, but it’s one of the better ones. Like the other tracks, it has a medium tempo and a big full sound, and the chorus is huge and impressive. The band gets political, too, with the song, “Eric Garner,” which tells the tale of the murder of an unarmed black man in New York City by police for the crime of selling loose cigarettes, and for which no one was ever held accountable. This record has its moments, both good and not so good. I think taken one at a time, some of these songs will be listened to again, but taken as an LP it has problems.

GOOD FRIEND – The Erin Rose EP (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)

Three songs from across the pond, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, to be exact, fill this new EP. The trio that is Good Friend originally hail from Northern Ireland, but moved to Newcastle to get shitty jobs and play in a band, as they claim. This is the band’s first release since the excellent “Ride the Storm” LP that came out way back in 2016. They had planned a tour with label mates Red City Radio, but we all know what happened to 2020 tour plans. This record was planned for that tour, and is now seeing the light of day. The track from which the EP takes its title, “Erin Rose Drinks On Shift,” is classic Good Friend, with a great jangling melody, plenty of whoa-ohs, and a bigger sound than you might expect from a trio. “We’ll Burn That Bridge When We Get To It” is a change of pace, a big rocking ballad with grunge influences. “Rusted Friends” is a stripped down track with just guitar and harmonized vocals, with a wistful folk-punk feel. Someday soon we’ll have live music again, and that tour needs to happen.

GLENN MORROW’S CRY FOR HELP – 2 (Rhyme & Reason Records, www.rhyme-reason.com)

Glenn Morrow is not only the owner/operator of the storied Bar/None Records record label, he’s also a musician. In the 1970's, he performed with the rock band The Individuals. He was in the band ‘a,’ which was the first band to play Maxwell’s, and kicked off the Hoboken indie music scene. Of course, ‘a’ evolved into The Bongos after Morrow left, and Maxwell’s became the epicenter of New Jersey music. Now, along with Ron Metz, Mike Rosenberg, and Ric Sherman, Morrow performs as Glenn Morrow’s Cry For Help. The songs range from power pop with psychedelic tinges to breezy pop rock.

I really like the opening track, “Yellowed Pages,” which uses garage rock guitar feel and a 70's psych pop vibe, and has lyrics referencing space and time and the astral plane. It’s kind of a throwback to underground music of a type that doesn’t get made much anymore, and it’s lovely. My favorite track is the power pop “G B & Co.” Every time Morrow sings “Yeah” at the start of a line, it’s just so….cool. The song lyrics speak to a memory of good times and great music, dancing and having fun, while the guitars jangle and rock. The song just bounces with joy. “The Ride” is an understated tune with an old time blues-influenced rock’n’roll feel and lyrics speaking to race relations, referencing, for instance, that Martin Luther King Blvd and JFK Blvd. in Jersey City don’t intersect, on how “it was sunny on your side and shady on my side,” referencing the economic divide that exists along racial lines. I also like the gliding feel of “What Happens Next,” a song about the end of a relationship and the start of, well, whatever happens next.

One of the clever things Morrow does with some of these songs is work in advertising slogans of the past into song lyrics. On “Yellowed Pages,” it’s “let your fingers do the walking,” the slogan used for many years to get people to use the Yellow Pages. And “Watch It Burn” has lyrics that include “Oh my god, you’re soaking in it,” which harkens back to the old Palmolive dish soap TV ads featuring Madge, the manicurist, who had her customers soak their nails in the mysterious green liquid, therefore proving how mild it was. These sorts of touches are fun and appealing, providing little Easter eggs for old guys like me, even if younger listeners don’t get the joke.

Not every track is a winner. I’m not a fan of the easy listening lounge track “Forever and a Day,” which reminds me more of a Burt Bacharach AM radio song from the 1970's than anything an indie innovator would do. But that’s really the only song I couldn’t get into – other than that, this album is pretty darn fine.

OH! GUNQUIT – Why Haven’t You Watered The Plants? (Decapitator Records, ohgunquit.bandcamp.com)

Oh! Gunquit (who may or may not be named after the Maine town of Ogunquit) are back with their third full-length LP. The band’s brand of rock’n’roll is a helluva lot of fun, blending garage and soul together. Tina Swasey’s vocals bring in a new wave element to the mix, too, and the result is a little trashy, a little funky, lively and boisterous. One of my favorite tracks is “Whiplash,” which seems to combine 60s girl-group rock and roll, garage rock, and B-52s new wave. Some of the songs have a “science fiction” theme, like the retro rock “Attack of the Killer Cranes” and the hard-driving anthem “Last Day On Earth.” “Dance Like Fuck” is another great one, seriously sounding like the B-52s might have had they formed a couple decades earlier. “Commander Salamander” is beat poetry set to throbbing music, Swasey speaking the lyrics like she’s telling a story at the Moth. This record makes me happy, and it will you, too.

OLD CALIFORNIO – Songs from the Sea of Cortez (oldcalifornio.bandcamp.com)

Emerging from a long slumber (their last LP, “Sundrunk Angels,” came out nine years ago), Americana group Old Californio returns with a dozen songs ranging from lightly twangy to folksy, from down home to rocking. “Saint Cecelia” is a lovely track to open with, with acoustic guitars that jangle along with harmonized vocals. The rhythm section chugs along like a leisurely train rolling down the tracks, and the fiddle solo is wonderful. “Lyre of Orpheus” is a pleasant Americana tune, with subtle twang of a steel guitar, and country blues vibe to it. As it fades we get a short bonus instrumental that has a rocking rhythm, wailing guitar, and jazzy sounding keyboards. It’s just a fragment, but I love it and wish it were turned into a song in its own right. I like the delicate acoustic “Trestles- San Luis Rey,” too, with its hints of flamenco inspiration and the backdrop of a rainstorm. It’s the kind of song to listen to curled up in front of the fireplace on a cold rainy day. “Too Tired” blends retro rock and 70s pop to create something pretty unique, and the closer, “Giving In” is a soulful number. This record, while rooted in Americana, is reasonably varied in its sounds, utilizing instruments such as piano, mandolin, and electric and acoustic guitars, and even if country isn’t your thing, this record is nice and cozy.

RLND – Zealand (Sell The Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com)

Instrumental LPs can be hit or miss. Too many times they’re boring, just playing melodies without lyrics and sounding like incomplete songs. Sometimes, though, they can be fascinating. This latter situation is the case with Bay Area band RLND (pronounced like Roland). Part math rock, part metal, part prog-rock, part indie, RLND recorded this LP last year. It was to be not only the band’s sophomore full-length release, but also their swan song, as the half the band decided to leave before it could be released. The remaining members were left wondering how to tour and promote the album, and quickly found replacements – and then 2020 and the global pandemic put the kibosh on the whole thing. There’s about fifty minutes of music here, ranging from lush and beautiful to raging and intense, from delicate and light to heavy head banging and thrash. Rhythms and time signatures change at the drop of a hat, as these musicians demonstrate their mastery over their instruments and the material. Some of the song titles are tongue in cheek, too, like “Kurt Loader” (apparently referencing film critic Kurt Loder), “Keith Sells,” “Basilica Gel,” and an homage to NPR radio personality “Terry Gross.” I’ve only liked a small handful of instrumental LPs in the past, and I usually don’t go in for the heavier stuff, so one would think that’s two strikes against RLND from me right there. But I find this record to be compelling and creative.

THE MR. EDS / INJECT THE LIGHT – Split Xmas Cassingle (the-mr-eds.bandcamp.com)

Two new songs for the holidays from hardcore solo heroes Inject The Light and The Mr. Eds. Of course, Inject The Light is the basement recording alter ego of Chris Mason, Dirt Cult Records’ boss and member of bands such as Low Culture and Shang-a-Lang, while The Mr. Eds is Razorcake’s Daryl Gussin, veteran of several Los Angeles punk bands. Inject The Light’s song is “Merry Xmas Grandma,” a warm wish for a happy holiday season that warns grandma that he’ll be coming on an airplane and taking a Lyft to visit, and expresses the desire that this not be the last one for her. The music is simple, dark and lo-fi, with one-note bass lines, distorted guitar, and backbeat snare drumming. “It’s Xmas (I’m Drunk and Screaming)” is the holiday offering from The Mr. Eds, and it’s similarly dark and lo-fi, but with more complex arrangements including lead and rhythm guitars, bass, and full drum kit. This one is less garage hardcore and more punk, and it’s looser, too. The lyrics refer to all the shit that’s gone down during 2020, the darkness of the words matching that of the music. I’m always a sucker for punk rock Christmas music, and this split single is a worthy addition to my collection (and yours).

THE RAGING NATHANS / THE REAGANOMICS – Midwest Duress EP (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net / Rad Girlfriend Records. www.radgirlfriendrecords.bandcamp.com)

Rad Girlfriend Records and Red Scare Industries, The Raging Nathans and The Reaganomics, Dayton, Ohio and Joliet, Illinois – this EP is a split release any way you look at it. And it’s all solid DIY punk rock. Each band contributes three songs, and all of them rage. With a name like The Raging Nathans you expect their songs to do so, and they don’t disappoint. Coming hot on the heels of the Oppositional Defiance” LP they released earlier this year, we get three excellent pop punk tracks, fast and loud, loaded with jangly noisy guitars and some simple yet effective arrangements. I especially like the call and response vocals of “Worry About Yourself” and the terse, primal “Fuck You.” The Reaganomics give us some interesting variety, with the first song, “OK Day” sounding like a Screeching Weasel style Ramonescore tune, with lyrics about having a bad day due to the realization of being dead, then coming to the understanding that it’s cool being dead and so it’s an OK day. And “Song in A” sounds very much like something the Fur Coats might have done, speedy and poppy. “Tear Off Your Face” slows things down, and is not a love song. Or maybe it is. Anyway you cut it, this is a great split.


SPARTA PHILHARMONIC – Nature of the Cure (www.spartaphilharmonic.com)

This is the long-awaited follow-up to Sparta Philharmonic’s triumphant LP, “(trans)migratory birds.” When I say long awaited, I mean it’s been ten years since that album came out, and five years since the band played their most recent live shows, with a handful of dates in the Pacific Northwest (which I actually got on a plane and flew to Olympia, Washington for – read about it here.) After a number of years on different continents, the Bortnichak brothers are back together (sort of – on opposite sides of the country), and have finally given us this five-song mini-LP.

This record is certainly noisier than the last one, for the most part, except for the tracks that bookend the record. The opening track is a short piece called, “Aha What,” and features ominous cello overdubs. It’s a dark piece that seems a lament for these dark times, as we hear the cellos weep and sigh. And the closing track, “The Actual Fuck,” is also an instrumental featuring Greg Bortnichak’s cello. It begins tentatively, but slowly builds, and despite the title it has a feeling of hope, the multi-tracked cellos rising toward the prospect of a better tomorrow. It has a gorgeous, lush, orchestral sound that’s stunning.

The three tracks in between are thick arrangements that belie the compact efficiency of Sparta Philharmonic. As with (trans)migratory birds, the duo use a number of tricks to create a much larger sound than two people should be allowed to make. “Jonah” and “Dignity,” the latter of which was the lead single, are pop tunes, but with different feels. “Jonah” reminds me of The Jesus and Mary Chain, for the overall morose vibe and the heavy use of reverb and distortion – but the Bortnichaks push these techniques to the limit, fuzzing things up to the extreme, cranking up the reverb, and injecting a grunge aesthetic to it.

“Dignity,” despite sharing the level of reverb and distortion of “Jonah,” has a brighter pop feel, with the guitars sometimes sounding almost like keyboards. The subject matter couldn’t be darker, though, with lyrics referencing the police violence and murders of black people. Speaking to this summer’s mass protests that occurred the song declares, “What yr seeing on the streets ain’t about one tragedy / Nor a few bad apples among our police.” This is about the sustained systemic racist attack on black Americans, as the song continues, “It’s the breaking point after centuries / Of denying Black Americans their dignity.” Donald Trump gets called out for sending troops to suppress the protests, causing more division, rather than to calm and ensure justice as a true leader would do: “A ruler lacking empathy’s an oppressor.” The music is strident, almost anthemic. “Dignity was first released as a split single with the band Canid, and proceeds from the sale of the track were donated, first to the family of Walter Wallace, Jr., a black man murdered by Philadelphia police just in October, and then to the ACLU.

“Wahn, Wahn, Wahn” is the noisiest of all the tracks. Wahn, according to the dictionary, comes from Old High German and means “illusion, delusion, vain hope, false idea, false perception of reality.” The lyrics refer to Wahn as a person, one who lives for deception and self-aggrandizement. The chaos sown by Wahn is echoed in the ataxia and bedlam of the music. The piece is divided into sections, with the first having a martial feel, a clanging clarion call accompanied by lyrics intoned, as if by monks of a religious order, as if Wahn is the object of misplaced worship by some. Who can this Wahn be? It may be that I’m reading too much into it, but the description seems to fit the 45th president. Between this song and “Dignity,” this is the most political I can recall Sparta Philharmonic getting.

Ten years between releases is a long time. It was worth the wait. But I certainly hope we don’t need to wait as long for more.

BEFORE STORIES – The Next Reason To Breathe (Ripcord Records, www.ripcordreords.com)

Scots duo Before Stories consists of Jamie Reed and Colin Brennan. Aberdeen seems to be an odd corner of the world to find a band blending post punk, emo, and hip hop/rap, but this is real. Guitar, bass, and drums provide the musical backdrop for the spoken word beat poetry of the lyrics. The arrangements are sparse with a distinct dark post punk feel. For example, the rumbling one-note bass lines of “Born Below the Tide” reminds me of Joy Division and that era of music. “Toe The Line” features jazzy percussion focused on the ride cymbal, buzzing guitars, and angry shouted vocals. “Hutl” is a dreamy track, featuring a meandering bass and what feels like stream of consciousness poetry for the lyrics. “1 Like = 1 Prayer” is the most tuneful track of the EP, with an almost poppy melody backing the spoken word lyrics, vocals rising in fury as the track progresses. There’s a grunge fuzz feel to the guitars and bass, and it’s probably the most “accessible” of the songs to the average indie music fan. “X99” has an almost industrial dance feel, with a strong beat and ominous grinding feel. The closer, “Come to Pass,” is another introspective dreamy one, similar to “Hutl,” with meandering guitar replacing the bass. Part way through, the guitar gains some fuzz and the vocals get gritty, bass and drums joining in for some emotional pop for a brief while, before returning to the poetic sound that the track began with. It’s a fascinating EP, definitely unique.

DAYDREAM – Mystic Operative (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

Dirt Cult goes through interesting cycles of the kind of music they put out. They’ve gone through the pop punk phase, a garage pop phase, a hardcore phase, and now a chaotic garage noise phase. Daydream, hailing from Portland, Oregon, combine distortion, driving bass lines, pounding garage rock rhythms, and manic guitar licks to create a cacophony like no other. Eleven songs in 28 minutes might be a little much in one go, but taken in smaller doses it can be mesmerizing. “Prophet of Peace” is hypnotic, with repeating and throbbing lines amidst the mayhem. There are angular melodic lines, too, on “Rendered Ghosts,” stabbing at the brain. “Conscious Raising” somehow resolves into a tune with a twang (down home noise rock?). There’s the disorganized pandemonium of “Spies for Personal Peace,” and there’s the industrial sounds of factory machinery in “Baptized & Blessed.” Each track has something to offer, something out of the norm, something to break through the dullness of extended isolation. Take in small doses, though. If swallowed whole, this can cause sensory overload.

DEVON KAY & THE SOLUTIONS – A Little Bit (devonkayandthesolutions.bandcamp.com)

Following the summer release of their latest LP, “Limited Joy,” with A-F Records, marking a departure from their pop punk roots, Devon Kay & The Solutions continues the journey deeper into pop music territory with this new self-released single. Present here are the thicker and more intricate arrangements that we started seeing with the LP; horns, synths, organ, piano, layered melodic lines, and deep harmonies fill the song. “A Little Bit “is my dumb punk love letter to bands like The Counting Crows & Motion City Soundtrack,” says Kay. “It’s a feel good love song about love not feeling good and the many steps it takes obtaining a solid relationship.” I hear pop punk and ska influence, as well as jazz and lounge, all blended together into a pretty pop number that lopes along at a leisurely pace.

THE HECK – Hate It Here (Sour Bomb Records, theheckgaragerock.bandcamp.com)

A brand new single from Netherlands garage rockers The Heck, we get two recordings of the same song with different lyrics. Distorted bass starts things out, then the whole band comes in, vocals crying and screaming about how much “I hate it here / I hate it everywhere / I hate it over there / But most of all / I hate it here / So fuck you all / Go fuck yourself / I hate it here.” The music has a simple chord progression, melodic bounce, and great garage power. The short B-side declares, “I like it here / I like it everywhere / I like it over there / But most of all I like it here / I love you all / I love myself / I like it here.” A much happier sentiment to match the joyous music. Fun stuff.

SWINGIN’ UTTERS – Boots 'N' Booze (Pirates Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)

“Boots 'N' Booze” is a new graphic novel set in a small beach town (Santa Cruz, California) in the 1980\s, recounting the adventures of a merry band of teenage ne'er-do-wells as they navigate their way through life, emulating 1960's UK skinhead culture, including an adoration of ska, reggae, and soul music. They share the town and have encounters with surfers, punks, mods, and of course, Nazi skins. Included with the comic is this two-song 7-inch single from Johnny Peebucks & the Swingin’ Utters (as the band was originally known,) recorded live at one of the parties documented in this autobiographical comic book anthology, named for the long-running zine that covered skinhead culture, from music and bands to the booze they liked to drink. Boots 'N' Booze features artwork and stories from Lucas Musgrave, Joel Loya, James Reitano, Dannyboy Smith, John Bush, Courtney Schamach, Misty Hecht, Glen McHenry, Jessica Louise, and Rob Sporleder. But we’re here for these early Utters songs, aren’t we? Though the recording quality is tinny, the 80's style of California punk rock is unmistakable. The two songs are “Tell Us The Truth” and “Sorry,” and you can hear and feel the raw fun and party atmosphere. These tracks are a snapshot from history that will cause feelings of nostalgia amongst punks who remember the era.

WRONG WAR – Fixed Against Forever (Council Records, www.councilrecords.com)

Wrong War is a fairly new band, only having formed in 2019. However, the band is made up of Chicago music veterans, and so Wrong War is a tight powerful band right out of the gate. Lead vocalist Matt Weeks was in the bands Current, Calvary, and Ottawa (and runs Council Records), while drummer Dan Smith was in Salvo Beta, and guitarist and bassist Pat Keanan and Dave Pawlowski played together in The Phenoms. For the most part, Wrong War play blistering Midwest hardcore that harkens back to the glory days of the 1980s, with fast’n’loud songs that are politically charged. Right from the first track, “Words Were Mere Words,” you can feel the hardcore punk power pour out of the speakers, and I’m transported back to the small dirty clubs in seedy neighborhoods in Chicago I used to frequent back in the day. After a bit of free-form guitar with cool effects, Pawlowski’s rapid-fire base comes in, laying the foundation for the song. Keanan’s angular guitar jabs and Smith’s pounding drums complementing Weeks’ angry shouted vocals. Some songs are more hard rock than hardcore punk, like “First Shot Misses,” another fast one that speeds by like a Motörhead fueled train from hell. The end of the track features a recording looping a man saying, “There’s no doubt that this is America’s moment of reckoning.” This flows immediately into some sound effects that sound like a short wave radio coded broadcast, and then launches into “Minimum Safe Distance.” Time is fleeting / What’s it for?” Weeks shouts in the chorus. “Time is wasted / On what you say. / Vented nothing / Outrage of day / Played your hand / And it’s utter exhaustion.” My take away from this is that Wrong War is talking about the conspiracy theories that keep getting repeated, wasting everyone’s time, displaying fake outrage over nothing.

Wrong War also takes some influence from the east, Washington, D.C. to be precise. “All You Ever Knew” is slower and more melodic, yet just as powerful, as it channels the Dischord post-hardcore sound. The track just rocks out, Weeks’ vocals spitting out the lyrics with an emotional intensity. It’s my favorite track of the LP. And as I listen to the other, more hardcore tracks, I can even hear influence from earlier DC bands, as well. “Escape Clause” is another favorite that sounds like something from a late 80s or early 90s Dischord band. It’s also the song the band takes its name from, with a chorus that, to me, speaks of selling out. “And what did you sell yours for? / You should have asked for a little bit more. / I think we all see, it’s the wrong war.” It might be the wrong war, but it’s the right band, because this record is highly recommended.

Democratic For The People (democraticforthepeople.bandcamp.com)

“I've always taken it personally when people say ‘blame the South’,” says Todd Farrell Jr. of the Nashville band, Benchmarks, when referring to national election results and the long history of electors going to the GOP candidate. “What they don't see are a lot of smaller battles being fought by progressive Southerners being undermined by voter suppression and gerrymandering.” But after the 2020 election, for the first time in decades, Georgia has been turned blue, thanks in part to Stacy Abrams’ tireless grassroots work in Atlanta with Fair Fight, and this inspired Farrell to assemble this unique compilation, featuring 23 artists (mostly) covering Georgia performers, all to benefit the Fair Fight organization. With two runoff elections for US Senate seats in Georgia determining control, groups like Fair Fight continue to be important in ensuring free and fair elections and enfranchisement for all eligible voters. Bands from across the spectrum, from Americana to indie rock to pop punk contributed tracks, and the result is an eclectic collection, ranging from quietly desperate acoustic anthems like Austin Lucas’ rendition of REM’s “Welcome to the Occupation” to the big full band country pop of Georgia Satellites’ “Battleship Chains,” performed by Dirt Reynolds.

Every track is well done and heart-felt, but there are some highlights. “Lance Howell does a gently soulful rendition of Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine” that blends some country twang and gospel undertones. Neutral Milk Hotel’s “King of Carrot Flowers” gets an amazing treatment from Achilleus, turning the quiet acoustic part into a glorious new wave pop tune, and the noisy grungy part into a quiet gospel tune with plenty of down home twang. Halloween Year magically transforms Drive By Truckers’ “The Company I Keep” from a slow country rock song into a raucous one that ranges from speedy pop punk to reggae punk. Little Richard’s R&B tune “Rip It Up” is done up as a classic rock’n’roll number by Nato Coles & the Blue Diamond Band. The stately “Finest Worksong” from REM becomes a faster, harder driving song at the hands of Benchhmarks. I really enjoy the garage rocker “Keys To Me,” originally released by “Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ but here done at a speedier pace and with a punk aesthetic by Orphan Riot. And one track that isn’t a cover, Micah Schhnabel’s “Attention Shoppers,” is an amazing track for the holiday shopping season. Schnabel is our generation’s beat poet laureate, and though the pop punk he does with Two Cow Garage is great, I especially love his moving solo music.

Tons of other bands contributed tracks to this comp, and I don’t want to shortchange them, because they’re all excellent. The comp is a very worthy listen, and it’s for a very worthy cause.


 

THE QUEERS – Save The World (All Star Records, allastarrecords.limitedrun.com)

Joe Queer has long been a polarizing personality in the world of pop punk. Hailed by some as one of the early “stars” of pop punk, decried as a conservative apologist by others, at best one thing is certain: Despite fronting The Queers for nearly 40 years, Joe can still write catchy songs when he wants to. And, though Ramonescore pop punk is The Queers’ bread and butter, they aren’t afraid to try new things. “If I Had a Girl Like You” is a lovely jangly indie pop song with really nice retro guitar tone and layered harmonized vocals. It’s actually one of my favorite songs of the LP. I like the power pop rock and roll of “Shit for Brains,” a track with self-deprecating, not accusatory, lyrics. “Hong Fucking Kong” has a fun melody with great backing vocals that give the song an almost Alpine folk tune vibe.

The Queers aren’t afraid to slow things down, either. “My Heart’s in the Right Place” is almost a ballad by The Queers’ standards, and it’s got a simple yet pretty melody. And “Let the Rain Wash Away My Tears” is another slower one, a pop punk tune with an indie rock feel mixed with retro 50's doo wop. Nor do they shy away from the controversy that’s surrounded them. Joe answers the online trolls who have called him a racist with “White Power Feud in Atlanta,” a hard rock tune that shows how he has always felt about Nazis.

Joe is sometimes still stuck in the 1980s era of punk rock shock, though, as is evident by the misogynistic tracks “Attack of the 5 Foot Bitch” and “Shirley Needs a Dildo,” which open the album. The former is a simplistic punk song that’s the weakest of the album, while the latter is classic tuneful 90s pop punk, some glorious Beach Boys like backing vocals included. But both songs have lyrics best left in the past, in my opinion. If you’re a fan of the Queers’ long history of silly punk songs, you have nothing to fear. “Cheeto In a Speedo Eating a Burrito” is here for you. So is the slightly sludgier “Fanculo A Tutti,” which is Italian and translates to “Fuck Everyone.” I think this is Joe’s commentary that everyone is fair game to be made fun of; there are no sacred cows.

So, think what you want about Joe Queer. Yeah, he’s an overgrown adolescent. Yeah, he’s got some questionable political beliefs about the police and certain leftist organizations. He does still make good music, and he loves his fans. I mean, the closing track says so right in the title, “We Love Our Fans.”

AMY ANGEL AND THE HELLRAISERS – Do It Again (Die Laughing Records, www.dielaughingrecords.com)

This East Bay band sounds too nice to raise any real hell. The ten songs on this LP are actually nice and light, and though some of them try to rock out, they aren’t going to be conjuring any demons any time soon. Instead, these are pleasant pop rock tunes, the equivalent of easy listening for heavy metal head bangers who have aged out of the pit. There are pleasing indie pop numbers, such as the opening track, “Walking In The City,” and there are varying levels of rockabilly ranging from slight to heavy in “Who’s That Girl” and “Yesterday’s High.” The track from which the LP takes its title, “I’d Do It Again” is a wannabe Motorhead or AC/DC hard rock song that never gets hard enough. Amy Angel’s vocals, for one thing, are just too pretty for the genre, I think. There’s the power pop of “Party Night Across The USA” and garage-lite of “White Witch.” “Never Too Late” sounds like a cross between retro rock and roll and something The Kinks might have recorded. I mean, these aren’t bad songs at all; the record is a pleasant listen. With a name like “Hellraisers,” though, I don’t know that pleasant is what they were going for.

GENTLEMEN ROGUES – Do The Resurrection 7” (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)

Gentlemen Rogues is an Austin, Texas based outfit that blends indie rock and power pop to create solid guitar-fueled songs. The A-side of this new single, “Do the Resurrection,” is loaded with fuzzy guitar jangle and, as the band says, “tackles love and loss, life and death, dying and undying devotion, rinsing and repeating.” The B-side is a unique mash-up called “Bloody Rudderless (in Ursa Major).” It’s part “Rudderless” by The Lemonheads, part Destination Ursa Major” by Superdrag, and part “When you Sleep” by My Bloody Valentine. It’s the ultimate homage to 90s indie rock and the band pull it off well.

HALF JAPANESE – Crazy Hearts (Fire Records, www.firerecords.com)

Except for a lengthy gap from around 2001 to 2014, Half Japanese have been releasing a steady stream of LPs, EPs, and singles since the two Fair brothers, Jad and David, began making music together in around 1974. Nowadays, though, it’s just Jad. Often pigeon-hold into the “art punk” genre, there’s more to the band than that. I hear a definite psych vibe in the music, which makes sense, given their genesis during an era of psych pop. But I can certainly see where the “art punk” label came from. Fair’s vocals and lyrics are unique, covering odd topics and delivered more like a reading during a poetry slam than a song. The album opens with “Beastmaster,” a track about the master of all beasts, who was raised by monkeys. Like I said, unique. The music is driving garage with psych elements, and a definite 60s “go-go” aesthetic. I like the bombastic “Dark World,” which sounds like the theme song to some science-fiction action adventure film made in the 1970s. “And It Is” has a fun bounce and bright feel from the cheesy organ, interrupted periodically by darker instrumental passages. The lyrics are about how everything is perfect and wonderful (“It’s a chocolate covered rainbow, it’s coming up roses, it’s more than alright…” but every time the topic comes around to “you and me” or “us, the dark passage begins. Half Japanese’s penchant for the supernatural and horror is on display in the song “Late at Night,” a slow eerie song about zombies walking the earth. It has a cinematic quality to it, too, but feeling like something from a low budget monster flick made during the “mod” era, perhaps. The title track sparkles, overflowing with goodness. “The love bug bit me on my nose / And my love, it grows and grows / And you are the one I chose / The one and only,” Fair intones. The whole song is a sappy declaration of the power of love, and you can’t help but smile. For readers more familiar with the pop punk world, think of Half Japanese as being sort of like Micah Schnabel with a full band playing garage-like retro psych pop. Half Japanese are staying true to their unique selves.

JOAN OF ARC – Tim Melina Theo Bobby (Joyful Noise Recordings, www.joyfulnoiserecordings)

This is it, folks. After 25 years as a band, Joan of Arc have called it quits, with this LP being their parting gift to all of us. And the band that has constantly reinvented themselves with every LP are closing with an album that sees themselves seemingly reinventing the band with each track. The LP, named for the members of the band (Tim Kinsella, Melina Ausikaitis, Theo Katsaounis, and Bobby Burg), begins with the pastoral “Destiny Revision.” Guitars roll gently, as percussion steps lightly as if strolling down a meandering path. The whole feel of the song is one of a carefree sunny day spent alone, just wandering. “Something Kind” features Melina on lead vocals to a song of dark foreboding that alternates between smooth and harsh sections. Listening to the attention to detail in the arrangement is a joy, with intricate flourishes totaling more than the sum of their parts. And that’s not just on this song, it’s every track. “Karma Repair Kit” sparkles and shines, guitars and synths dancing around each other, while “Land Surveyor” is a bombastic synth-heavy instrumental. “The Dawn of Something” is another instrumental and has a wonderful drone and percussion that gives it a South Asian feel, like a trance-inducing Indian raga. “Cover Letter Song” is a depressing dirge that articulates a series of crappy jobs that make up a life experience. And I love the odd expansive waltz, “Rising Horizon,” punctuated as it is with samples of gasps and storytelling. Front man Tim Kinsella has a new project taking his focus now, Good Fuck, a duo with his wife, Jenny Pulse. So, farewell, Joan of Arc. We’re sad to see you go, because this album shows you still had so much to say. But we’ll hold these songs in our hearts.

SLOW BUILDINGS – Dereliction EP (www.facebook.com/slowbuildings)

Slow Buildings is the power pop/indie rock outlet for New Jersey resident Jason Legacy. The opening track, “Fruit,” reminds me a lot of a favorite band from the 1980s, The Vertebrats. They were a local garage/power pop band from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois and one of my introductions into the world of indie music back in the day. “Too Monkey” is a cool jazzy jumpy tune with garage undertones. “Your Muse Is Problematic” eschews the garage and pop for more of a 90s indie-nerd aesthetic, with quiet jangle from a guitar with a clean tone. “Dead From a Distance” gets a bit 80s goth, “Rest and Recovery” is quiet and solemn, and “So Long” closes the EP out with a head bobber of a song that bounces with whimsy. Though the move from genre to genre is a little disjointed, the songs themselves are nice enough.


THE CAVEMEN – Euthanise Me (Slovenly Recordings, www.slovenly.com)

After being separated for a long period of time, with some band members stuck in Spain for an extended period of time due to the pandemic (and releasing some fun records along the way under the name “Sin City”), The Cavemen are all back together and back at Slovenly Recordings with a new four-song EP that will melt your face! Three of the four songs are in-your-face hardcore garage punk, fast and loud, even more so than usual Cavemen releases, as if the quartet had a lot of pent-up energy to release. The title track is a reference to New Zealand’s vote this year on whether to enact the End of Life Choice Act of 2019, which would allow terminally ill patients with less than six months to live to choose to end their own life. Preliminary results show it passed with 65% of the vote, and will go into effect twelve months after the date of the vote. The song is manic and desperate, pleading vocals begging for release. I love the paean to cannibalism, “Eat Your Heart Out & Wear Your Face,” maybe one of the most hardcore and garage punk of all Cavemen songs ever, speedy punk rock, primitive and raw, the best sort. “Nightmare” is an anti-love song, with the song declaring “It’s a nightmare every time I see you.” Another fast one, you can feel them losing control, just as they sing, “Every time I see you I lose control.” The last song of the quartet is “Over You,” and it’s a slower one, a little cleaner sounding than the others, and it’s bouncy and melodic, almost a power pop tune! It’s so good to have them back!

HEART & LUNG – You Wanna Know The Truth? (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)

Heart & Lung are prepping a new LP for Red Scare for 2021, so label boss Toby Jeg decided, what the hell, why not re-release this, the band’s very limited and long out of print debut LP? Why not, indeed? The Cleveland pop punk outfit are certainly worthy, featuring tight performances, harmonized vocals, and snappy riffs. Apparently Heart & Lung are baseball fans, because the album’s first track, “Telecaster,” starts with Tom Hamilton, the voice of the Cleveland Indians, telling us, “we’re under way at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario,” where the Indians’ ballpark is situated. What follows is 27 minutes of bright, fun, poppy punky music. “Hit Song No. 4” is aptly titled, because it’s written to sound like a radio-friendly bubblegum pop song, and it’s done brilliantly, with big harmonies in the vocals. “1954” uses hints of retro rock and roll to set the stage, and the song speaks about attitudes that are stuck in the past, and decries the idea of “separate but equal,” the legal doctrine enshrined by the 1896 Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, but finally overturned by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education – in 1954. Yeah, Heart & Lung can get political while still kicking out the pop jams. The song flows without pause into the title track, a shining anthem to loving touring, your scene, and all your friends. “Don’t Need You Anyway” is another one with a retro pop melody, the harmonized vocals reminiscent of the girl groups of the 60s. And so is the topic, with the song about a break-up. Every one of the eleven tracks on the LP is high energy, tight pop punk, and I can’t wait for the new LP. Toby sure has a knack for picking out the pop punk gems.

JIFFY MARX – She’s My Witch b/w Warning Sign (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)

Autogramm’s Jiffy Marx, while on hiatus from touring during the pandemic and working on Autogramm’s next LP, decided to visit Seattle friends from Bread & Butter. There, they recorded what we have here, Marx’s debut solo single. The A-side, “She’s My Witch,” is part power pop, part garage, and part classic rock and roll. The song has a swaggering feel, reminiscent of Mick Jagger, and the bouncy hooks are a hoot. “Warning Sign,” on the other hand, has a little more of a somber aura, but still solidly a mix of garage and power pop, with some 80s post punk mixed in, too. I hope this wasn’t just a one-off, because these are good songs.

LARS FINEBRG – Tinnitus Tonight (Mt. St. Mtn., www.mtstmtn.com)

You might recognize the name Lars Finberg from Thee Oh Sees, or maybe from The A-Frames. Or perhaps, even, The Intelligence. But here Finberg is releasing this LP under his own name. And, as you might expect, there are plenty of garage influences here. But if you think that’s all there is you would be wrong. There’s folk-punk, synth-wave, and more on this well-executed and eclectic album. The opening track, “Lord of the Flies,” is a gorgeous melodic track that blends both acoustic and electric guitars in some clever arranging, along with subdued drums and bass. It has both the blasé feel of post-punk no-wave and the melodic sensibilities of power pop; it’s a wondrous dichotomy. “Satanic Exit” keeps the same feel, but trades the acoustic for buzzy synths. The song has minimalist repetition in the line, but plenty of bounce. Right at the end of the track, it briefly explodes with garage rock guitars for a big finish. “The Doors” is a cool one, with some tribal drumming, a driving beat in the chorus, wicked guitars, and an off-kilter feel in the verses. “Public Admirer” is a chaotic noise-fest, with feedback aplenty in the guitars, yet melodic vocals holding the center. One thing I really love about these tracks is the jazzy element injected into several of them – they aren’t jazz, but there’s a sort of relaxed jazz sensibility here. Listen to the strong backbeat in “Boy Division,” an otherwise full-on garage track. “TV / True Love” is a favorite, starting out as a very bouncy melodic garage track, then turning jazzy with guitars reminiscent of the smooth stylings of Thomas Dolby’s “The Keys To Her Ferrari.” Even more in the jazzy vein is “Wild Pilgrims,” with super clean guitar tone and a relaxed beat. The studio conversation retained at the end of the track is interesting, with someone saying, “so, one more time,” as if it wasn’t good enough, but you hear another voice saying, “yeah, dude, he was stoked on that.” So am I.

MUCK AND THE MIRES – Welcome to Muckingham Palace (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)

Last winter I reviewed a single from Muck and the Mires, “Cupid’s Not a Friend of Mine.” It was to be a harbinger for a new LP due out in the spring. And then COVID-19 did what it’s done to so much of 2020, and the LP was delayed. Later we got an EP from them, “Welcome Back to Planet Earth,” half a dozen songs recorded during the lockdown. But now we finally get the long-delayed LP, and man, this was worth the wait! They’ve been described as “1964 Beatles meets the Ramones,” and it ain’t wrong. This Boston garage band play a mix of power pop, retro garage, power pop, and a hint of punk. The fourteen songs are melodic and bouncy, loaded with fun. “This Time I Know I’m Right” opens things with an amazingly great song, possibly the best I’ve heard from the Mires yet. It’s so tight, poppy and ebullient. “I’m Your Man” is the lead single, and it’s a deeper garage cut, more rock and roll than pop. “Too Soon to Fall In Love” solidifies that Beatles simile, with some great 60s bubblegum rock mixed with power pop and undercurrents of garage, just enough to keep it real. “Don’t Start Running Away” pumps up the even earlier Beatles era, with a strong R&B influence, and “The Way It Was Before” eschews most of the garage sound for a great jangly pop aesthetic. “Good Enough” blends power pop and a working class rock and roll feel, a la Bruce Springsteen.” All these tunes are just so damn good! When the album ends with “Break It All,” all mayhem breaks loose, Beatles and garage and R&B influences all rolled up in one. Very worth the wait.

NOi!SE – Base Rage On The Front Page (Pirate’s Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)

NOi!SE have been on a tear lately, releasing a slew of singles and EPs. This latest one, musically, is a banger, faster, louder, and angrier than other recent songs. The production quality muddies it, though; it sounds like it was recorded in a high school gymnasium or something. And that’s a shame, because the song is a good one.

 

 

RECORD THIEVES – Wasting Time (Thousand Island Records, www.thousandislandrecords.com)

The music on this debut LP from Denver’s Record Thieves is solidly in the 90s punk camp, blending together skate punk and pop punk styles and ending up about halfway between the two genres. They have a sound that recalls 90s bands like Millencolin and especially Face To Face, with melodic punk that’s not quite so hardcore. The lead vocals are strong and emphatic and the band is super tight. Harmonized backing vocals fill a lot of the spaces, and the guitars are huge. If you’re a fan of 90s punk, you’re going to love Record Thieves, because they do a solid job on the eleven songs on the LP. Sometimes the skate punk influence comes a bit to the fore, like on “Actors For Hire,” where the speedier harder edged style is predominant, or the opening track, “Sacrifice,” which while not so speedy, has a distinct skate punk guitar sound. “Who’s Driving” is a little more on the pop side, smoother and less edgy and high strung than many of the tracks. “Daily Revolver” reminds me a little bit of Midwest melodic hardcore punk from an earlier age. But my favorite track of the LP is it’s final one, “Slumber Party.” It’s got a big striding sound and a hopeful feel in the chorus, as the lyrics are belted out; “It’s cold outside tonight / I hope you’re sleeping well.” Though the songs are well executed and energetic, and there are some high points, there’s a little too much sameness from song to song to really hold my interest too long. More dynamic variance and more variance in tempo from song to song would go a long way toward a change for the better.

SUNDAE CRUSH – A Real Sensation (Donut Sounds Record Co., www.donutsounds.com)

Originally from Denton, Texas and now making their home in Seattle, Washington, “whether you're swooning over a new crush or avoiding the anxiety of a breakup, Sundae Crush are your friends, and their cosmic world is your escape,” according to the band’s Facebook “about” page. Their debut LP is pretty stripped down indie pop, with a couple of guitars, bass, and drums. The music is light and airy, much sparer than many bands. There are no fancy effects with pedals, no distortion, just pretty music with lots of space. The LP opens with “Kiss 2 Death,” an eerie intro track featuring guitar, whistling, and organ. “Long Way Back” is the first “proper” song, and it’s got jangle in ample supply, harmonized and dueling vocals, and a slightly garage feel, but this is definitely not a garage rock record; this is indie pop, with spunk! The song structures on this LP are somewhat unconventional, stopping and starting, shifting tempos and time signatures, bouncing vocals around, adding random shouts, and including interesting instrumentation, such as vibraphone, saxophone, or trumpet. There are lounge-like pop songs like “Lick It Up,” with smooth jazz guitars, syncopated vocals, trumpets, and backing vocals that are almost Motown-like, while “Green Lake” features fluttery flutes and ethereal synths; the track has a 70s psychedelic pop feel to it. And it’s got a dog barking in it? Interesting arrangement! “La La” is an odd one, closing side one; its lyrics are simply “La la la” repeated over and over, and it speeds up at the end, as if someone was turning up the pitch control. I like “Good Boy,” especially the back half, when the arrangement gets thicker, with synths, saxophones, and flutes. The song is fairly simple, but the Latin-esque beat and the instrumentation makes it interesting. Not everything works as well as most of the tracks. “What Do I Need” is a little too minimalist and feels somewhat empty, and the second half of that track is an unnamed instrumental that drags. It’s slow and repetitive. The closer, “Dudes Being Guys,” starts out as a fascinating hymn, turns into a garage pop tune for a bit, then becomes a weird synth-pop thing, all the while the only lyrics are “dudes being guys” repeated over and over. Despite a few lapses here and there, this debut is fairly lovely.

WET TROPICS – Everybody Get In (Friend Club Records, www.friendclubrecords.com)

Part surf, part garage, part punk, Chicago’s Wet Tropics have been slowly releasing single track demos over the past two years, and now we’ve finally got their debut full-length LP. And man, I haven’t been this excited about an album in a long time. The three-piece outfit has a big yet stripped down sound, with prominent bass, loads of fuzz, and some great indie melodies. The opening track, “Cool California,” shows off those surf guitar chops in a big way, and the retro post punk vocals, emphatically partially sung, partially spoken with lots of “body English,” are spot on, remind me in a way of the B52s. Though the arrangement is pretty spartan, there’s so much going on it gives it a full sound. It’s the perfect introduction to the sound of this LP, with its lo-fi production aesthetic, but not so lo-fi that it sounds muddy; it’s perfect. “Le Fakery” is a little more up-tempo and has a stronger garage sound than most of the tracks, the bass taking a lead role. With “Green Dreams” the vocals get more melodic, the guitars start adding some cool flourishes, and you start to see the whole package for the intense creativity behind it. One thing that’s striking, too, is the effortlessness with which the trio seem to play; it doesn’t sound like they’re working hard. There’s a casualness that just adds to the sense that this is something special. The song “Tragic Accidents” is nothing short of brilliant. It’s spare and simple, but so incredibly effective, particularly the way the guitar punctuates the end of melodic lines. It’s my favorite of the album. “Subway” is another great one. You can hear the commuter train zooming through the tunnel in the guitar and drums. And the point where you hear guitar harmonics tossed in there? Spine-tingling. I am obsessed with this album, and you will be, too.

THE 1984 DRAFT – "Destination Breakdown" EP (Poptek Records, www.poptek.com)

Ohio indie rockers The 1984 Draft are following up their 2018 debut LP, “Makes Good Choices,” with a new two-song single. There’s a slight Americana feel to both of these songs, though they’re quite different from each other, and they’re more introspective than the songs on the LP. The A-side is “Shame About Grace,” and it’s got a big sound, expansive and open. The very first line of the lyrics is something I can relate to, too: “I don’t think I act my age.” The song, overall, is about how people we thought we shared something in common with grow apart, developing different beliefs, some of them harmful. It’s a reference to the divide in our communities over the response to the pandemic, with some believing in the science designed to slow the spread of infectious disease, and others politicizing it for selfish reasons. “You know our scientific facts will never match,” says one of the lines of the song, while the chorus and song title reference how so-called “grown-ups” can act like spoiled children, “It’s a shame at this age / You’re forgetting simple grace.” The B-side, “Counting Up,” has a more delicate sound to open, and when it gets going it’s a more emotional striding sound. And where “Shame About Grace” has a hint of anger to the lyrics, “Counting Up” is more wistful. It’s also a pandemic-era song, and references the feelings of loss we all have about missing shows, gatherings, and friends. It speaks to the toll on children who can’t spend time with their friends, too. But now, it’s as if time is standing still. We fill our time with work around the house (“I’ve painted and worked on my home I have six rooms done”) and enjoying family time (“I laugh and I play with my kids” and “I cherish the time with my wife”). But everything else in our lives is on hold (“But then the plague set in, the timer seemed to stop. I’m no longer counting up.”). I anxiously await the time when we no longer have to dwell on the effects of the coronavirus, but while it’s here, it’s providing fodder for some passionate and poignant songs like these.

THE JASONS / BLACK RUSSIANS - The Jasons/Black Russians Split (Mom’s Basement Records, momsbasementrecords.bigcartel.com)

You get your choice of a four-song 7” or a six-song CD with this new split. The Jasons - hailing from Camp Crystal Lake, New Jersey - favor hockey masks and pop punk. Black Russians are a new band dedicated to teaching children to worship Stalin through pop punk, and they throw a helluva party: a Communist party. The two bands start their respective sides of the record with an overt threat toward the other. “Kill a Commie for Mommy” opens The Jasons’ side, while Black Russians’ opening salvo is “Kill The Jasons.” To be perfectly frank, it’s a mixed bag for me. Some of the songs are good, while some are more mediocre. “Kill a Commie for Mommy” feels a little too raw, a little too metallic, and a little bit sloppy. The other two songs from The Jasons are much better. “Red Dawnna” opens with a distant scratchy recording of the opening measures of the classic Richie Valens song, “Oh Donna,” and then launches into a speedy fun ‘90s Ramonescore pop punk song. “A Blaze in the Soviet Sky,” the bonus song from the CD, covers Black Russians with a darker pop punk song reminiscent of the Chicago school of punk rock, though it does throw in some metal guitar solo type stuff the song could have done without. On the B-side, Black Russians’ start things with that song about all the ways they’re going to destroy The Jasons, giving it a nice poppy bounce amidst the gritty guitars. “Invasion USA” continues the wall of guitar sound, and the melody gets darker. The CD bonus track is “Red Blooded Soviet Punk Rock,” and is more rock and roll than punk rock. It’s well executed, but not my thing. So not counting the first and last CD version tracks, it’s a good record.

V/A – Big Stir Singles: The Yuletide Wave (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)

Most musical artists who decide to release music for the holidays stick to providing their own take on the time-worn carols of the season. Big Stir’s roster of acts, though, have, for the most part, provided their own seasonal songs for starting new traditions. The styles here range from power pop to indie, from bubblegum to near show-tune styles. Nick Frater’s “Wash Your Hands of Christmas” is a bubbly British Invasion ditty that’s perfect for this pandemic season, and The Brothers Steve give us the great power pop holiday tune, “I Love The Christmastime.” I really like The Stan Laurels’ tune, “Noche Buena,” a lovely Beatles style pop tune given a more modern indie sound by fuzzing up the guitars considerably, and the ending with the synthesized flutes is absolutely beautiful. “Revels Without a Claus” is not only a hilarious title, it’s a bubbly funny song from the UK band Spygenius. It’s cheeky, like something Monty Python’s Eric Idle might write. Anton Barbeau’s “Xmas Song” is a cool retro psych-folk-rock tune, with jangle aplenty to go with the jingle (bells). The Decibels do something different, taking the song “Gloria” and singing the lyrics to “Angels We Have Heard On High.” Christmas has come to the garage! Michael Simmons contributes his lounge pop “Christmas Waltz,” sounding like something out of a late night side stage in Vegas. And speaking of hilarious, Dolph Chaney presents a song called “Jingle Bells,” but it’s not the one you’re thinking of. It has original lyrics, but sung to the tune of Van Halen’s “Panama.” Even Chanukah gets in on the act, with Alison Faith Levy’s light indie-pop “All I Want For Chanukah Is A Ukulele,” so she can learn a new chord each of the eight days. All in all there are twenty-five tracks and an hour and twenty minutes of holiday cheer. Grab this one for those upcoming nights watching the Yule log burn and enjoying some eggnog with your immediate household only, please.

V/A – For Family and Flag Volume 1 (Pirates Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)

Based on the success of their “One Family One Flag” triple LP compilation which celebrated the label’s 200th release, Pirates Press has decided to embark on a series of compilations that celebrate the bands on the label. This first outing sees new and unreleased tracks, as well as favorites from past releases. The fourteen tracks provide a look at the breadth and depth of the Pirates Press roster with long-established bands and newer ones sharing the stage, all contributing to this strong comp. A dozen songs of street punk, punk rock, and power pop are bookended by a pair of unique tracks. Caribbean jazz outfit Shuffle and Bang open with a swingin’ rendition of BB King’s “Let the Good Times Roll,” from their LP “Island Bop.” Closing the comp is Lenny Lashley's Gang of One, performing a gorgeous, solemn rendition of “Need.” Lashley’s plaintive vocals are backed by simple acoustic guitar, handclapping, and tambourine, with a bit of piano. Quiet and simple, it’s a nice way to end the otherwise raucous LP. In between are some fantastic tracks. Highlights include Cock Sparrer’s glorious “Marching Onwards,” a mix of power pop and rock steady from The Slackers in the form of “Nobody’s Listening,” and “Battery Street,” from The Drowns’ great LP “Under Tension.” “Watch Your Back” is the title track off the forthcoming LP from Charger, and it’s, well, a hard charging track. “Working Poor” from Bishop’s Green is a great street punk track, full of jangly guitars and politically charged lyrics. “Taking Back the Neighborhood,” from Seized Up, is powerful hardcore. And Subhumans prove they’re still making speedy, powerful, vital music with “Thought Is Free,” from their “Crisis Point” EP. I like the power pop of 45 Adaptors’ “Now or Never.” And I really enjoy the raucous “Black Clouds,” from The Antagonizers. Every track on this comp is a highlight, really, including “When This World Ends,” from The Barstool Preachers, “Lost,” from NOi!SE, and Lions’ Law’s “Damaged Heart.” Pirates Press is putting out some great music these days.


HEXADIODE – Controlled Burn (hexadiode.bandcamp.com)

One year on from the release of their LP, “Metaxy,” the Dayton, Ohio industrial innovators decided to try an experiment. The tracks from that LP were provided to a diverse roster of sonic scientists from all over the globe for their manipulation. The results were assembled, all during the global pandemic, and released as a celebration of the one-year milestone of the record. Of that album I said it contained, “pounding dance beats, gritty growling vocals, tons of synths and drum machines, distortion aplenty, and an unyielding power…” and that it is “well-executed menacing music.” These remixes hardly change that assessment, for the most part. The very first track breaks the rules, though – it’s the band’s own remix of “Parasitic Static.” The new version, though still with a strong beat, is less dance and more sinister sounding, more mechanical. I like the 11grams extended remix of “Invariant,” the original being harsher and more grating, the remix sounding more militaristic. Many of the remixes are cleaner sounding, sometimes more evil, deeper. I love the deep bass resonance punctuating “Impulse Matrix” as remixed by Damn the Witch Siren. “Metaxy,” remixed by Skeleton Hands,” thrums with the rhythms of urban life in a gritty city. “Brain In 3” comes across as more of an epic theme for a dystopian science fiction film as reconstructed by Soft Riot, but when given the treatment by Slighter, it’s eerie as hell, and I fear for my soul. It’s simply one of the best tracks of the LP. Less successful, in my opinion, is the remixed version of the title track from last year’s LP. Red Pyramid took “Metaxy” and thinned it out, making it lighter and less grating in some parts, harsher and noisier in others, and it feels somewhat disjointed to me. And Freeze Etch’s remix of “Extreme Unction” just isn’t quite as extreme as the original. But overall, the experiment is a success.

THE KINSEY SICKS – Quarantunes (www.kinseysicks.com)

The world’s first “beauty shop quartet,” The Kinsey Sicks, the self-styled “girl-group made of boys” sing what they call “Dragapella,” drag queen a cappella. What we get is sixteen songs of social and political commentary, sung in glorious four-part harmony and with a wicked sense of humor. The topics are all current and relevant, touching on topics such as the global pandemic (“Social Distance”), political corruption at the highest levels of government (“Grifters”), presidential sex scandals (“Stormy Daniels”) and the politicization of the US Department of Justice (“Mad Attorney General”). In the best parody song tradition, many of the songs have familiar melodies, such as “Scalia,” a song about the awful legacy of the late Supreme Court justice sung to the tune of “Maria,” from “West Side Story.” The singing is gorgeous, and the satire bites hard. I love lines like “Lady Justice is found giving you the bird” that comes at the end of the track. “Stormy Daniels” is sung to the tune of the old standard, “Stormy Weather,” and views the situation from the point of view of the titular porn star. We get a lush Christmas carol sung to the tune of “Noel,” but here it’s called “Nobel,” and sings the story of Donald Trump’s jealousy of Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, and how he doesn’t deserve the one for which he was controversially nominated. “No Nobel unless it’s delivered to your prison cell,” the song ends, on a bright note. Another holiday tune, “Santa Baby,” becomes the backdrop for a commentary on racist immigration policy called “Anchor Baby.” Even Gilbert and Sullivan are pressed into service, with their melody from “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General “ stolen and recycled into “Mad Attorney General,” which rips Bill Barr to shreds. And, after singing the song at a more moderate pace than G&S would have it, we hear the shout, “Wow! Those lyrics were terrible! Can you sing them so fast no one can possibly understand them?” This is followed by the brisker pace of the original, showing off the group’s musical chops. Other topics include the various types of privilege that allow some to stay blind to discrimination in our society, such as weight privilege, white privilege, male privilege, and straight privilege. The sharp wit can be heard on this track after the first verse about “weight privilege,” when we hear a speaker interrupt, saying, “Um, I think you mean white privilege, not weight privilege.” “White privilege?” comes the reply, “I never heard of that!” “The Sound of Sirens” is a beautiful hymn to the authoritarian use of police violence to suppress the voice of the people, of course to the melody of the Simon and Garfunkel classic, “The Sound of Silence.” “Tomorrow,” the song from “Annie,” keeps its title but gains lyrics about the joys that tomorrow will bring as we emerge from the shadowy Trump administration years. Great singing, sizzling lyrics, timely topics, and drag queens; The Kinsey Sicks have it all on this fun LP!

MYLES MANLEY – Cometh The Softies (Witter On, www.witteron.ie)

Irish musician Myles Manley is a perfect example of why, sometimes, less is more. The sparse arrangements on the ten songs on this LP are absolutely perfect the way they are. When you write and play excellent songs, there’s no need to muddy them up with thick arrangements or overproduction. A couple guitars and minimalist percussion are all you need, sometimes. The best comparison to Manley’s vocals I think I can make would be David Byrne. The tentative nature of the vocals, mated to the minimalist arrangements, the repeated melodic lines, and enigmatic lyrics speaks to me. “Were We Under Attack From England” opens the album with bluesy electric guitars right out of the bayou combined with a flamenco style acoustic guitar, machine gun staccato percussion, and a deep BRAAAP” from the electric guitar punctuating some of the lines. “Relax; Enjoy Your Night Upon the Town” comes next, with a breezy melody from the electric guitar, an even more staccato percussion underneath, and lyrics that I think could be quite political, talking about use of entertainment to distract how we’re all losing ground daily against the “1%,” those with all the money and power who keep eroding our freedoms and our economic means to survive. “They're coming after me and then they're coming after you! / And then -- I'm going to tell you just exactly what we'll do -- / We're gonna have a party, yeah, we're gonna have a ball, / They're going to forget that there is a problem at all,” says one version of the chorus. “Cinema / Mild Manners” is one of my favorites. What I can only assume is heavily processed guitar makes a different sort of “braaaaap!!” sound, while the minimalist melody has the energy of a spy thriller soundtrack. You would think the lyrics would be equally mysterious and thrilling – but they’re about wanting to go see a movie at the cinema, but encountering someone who’s pissed on the seats and refused to wipe it up. The intensity of the guitars is a joy and the use of just a few notes to create a phrase that’s repeated over an over to crank of the tension is extremely well done. Those lyrics could well be about people who contribute to polluting the earth and causing climate change, but refusing to change their ways, despite the obvious mess they’re making. But I could be over-thinking this. “Will Anyone…?” is a lovely jazz-pop tune, and I surmise it’s about hypocrites who decry injustice while visiting injustice on others themselves. “The injustice of it all / Sent you whirring out of control… How can someone cut so clean / Be so unbelievably mean? / Working out your false dichotomies.”

Less certainly can be more. Fewer notes, minimalist melodies and minimalist instrumentation, fewer words, even, arcane lyrics. These things can add up to something so much more than the sum of the parts. And in the case of Myles Manley, they certainly do. This is one of the most unique, fascinating, and fun records I’ve heard this year.

THE MYRRHDERERS – The Myrrhderers Sleigh Christmas (themyrrhderers.bandcamp.com)

Many many years ago, when I DJ’ed a weekly shift at a fully DIY student run college radio station in Chicago, I looked forward every year to the holiday season. I made a practice of collecting punk rock, indie, and off-the-wall holiday music and once a year I would go crazy playing those songs over the air. It started out as just the first couple of 15 to 20 minute sets in my shift, but as my collection grew it slowly took over the entire four-hours. I miss those days, but The Myrrhderers (pronounced like murderers, of course), a super group from the North Pole, are here to give us a punk blast just in time for jolly old Saint Nicholas to slide down your chimney and give your whole household the ‘rona. These little elves give us five familiar songs of the season, ready for shredding your skateboard over the blanket of fresh snow. “Deck The Halls” is a bright, shiny Fat Wreck style version of the classic carol, while the band’s rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is some speedy, dark metallic punk, the perfect sound for saving us all from Satan’s power and giving us tidings of comfort and joy. I really like the slower grunge version of “Do You Hear What I Hear,” with its great 90s indie sound, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a lovely jangly pop tune here. Closing out the EP is “Carol of the Bells” as you’ve never heard it before. Dark, powerful, metallic, and sinister are some adjectives that come to mind. Some people get sick of Christmas music fast when the holidays come around, but when you have non-traditional versions like these from The Myrrhderers, they’re a lot of fun.

KATY J. PEARSON – Return (Heavenly Recordings, www.heavenlyrecordings.com)

After trying the major label pathway to making music, in a project with her brother that “went to shit,” as she says, Katy J. Pearson is striking out on her own with this debut solo LP from the UK native. In some of the interviews and write-ups I’ve seen there are references to an Americana influence in the music, and I guess I can hear that, if only slightly. What I hear is sweet indie music with hints of UK folk influence. Sure, maybe there are some similarities to American artists like Lydia Loveless, but there’s more alternative here than country twang, especially in the bright sunny opening, “Tonight,” even though it begins with a chorus of weeping fiddles. The sparkling acoustic guitar and up-tempo beat says “pop” way more than country. And when the trumpets come in, there’s not a cowboy in earshot. The music on the ten tracks is light and airy, pleasant to listen to. I like the drive of “Beautiful Soul;” the arrangement evolves from simple to complex, and the cello that comes in later in the song is simply gorgeous. As nice as the music is, there’s something about Pearson’s vocals on some of the tracks that bothers me. On the title track, there’s a little too much vibrato, her voice rapidly wavering on some of the longer notes. There’s also a quality to her vocals that bothers me a bit – I can’t put my finger on it. The register is higher than I like, I guess? That combined with the quaver that appears on various songs is a bit off-putting. “Fix Me Up” is a perfect example of this dichotomy; I love the bouncy melody and the arrangement is fun and pleasing, but the vocals grate on me. It’s like that on a lot of these tracks.

UNITED DEFIANCE – Empty Advice (www.facebook.com/uniteddefiance)

Oakland’s United Defiance play melodic punk in the 90s skate-punk vein, and they’re one of the better DIY bands in the genre. Their latest release is a new single, “Empty Advice,” which is a harbinger of a new LP coming sometime next year. It’s typical United Defiance fare, up-tempo melodic punk rock, crunchy guitars, gang vocals, and loaded with energy. One of the things that make United Defiance such a fun band to watch and listen to is the joy that comes though in their music; it’s obvious they’re having a lot of fun playing. The song, at least how I interpret it, seems to be about how people tend to look to others for what to think and how to live, not standing up for themselves and what they believe. But being your own person can lead to better things, as the chorus says, “Come out swinging if your backs against the wall / There's so many people that want to watch you fall / Sometimes you're right sometimes you're wrong / Just stand your ground and write your own song.” Be yourself – it’s a simple message, but hard to do sometimes. Now I am eagerly anticipating the LP.


RICKY – Palm Trees (rickysmusic.bandcamp.com)

Ricky is Ricky Schmidt. You may know him from Western Settings or Hey, Chels, the two bands in which he’s currently active. This is his debut solo LP, and he’s joined by Shane Hendry on drums and Hey Chels band mate Jax on backing vocals. The music on “Palm Trees” teeters between the styles represented by Ricky’s other bands, Western Settings being the more emotional and epic sounding band, Hey Chels representing the poppier side. Here we get songs that are big and expansive, yet poppy, bouncy, and darkly bright (the overall feel is bright, but some of the guitar sounds are sad and lonely). The production has an interesting quality, with vocals done lo-fi and with loads of reverb, but the instrumentals somewhat cleaner. This is courtesy of Tyson “Chicken” Annicharico, bassist/vocalist of the band Dead To Me, who has been making a name for himself as a producer, as well. Ricky developed a relationship with Annicharico when he produced two Western Settings records over a five-year period. “Having Tyson in the studio is a pleasure,” says Schmidt. “Tyson knows exactly what I’m trying to accomplish musically and he always has the best ideas on how to achieve it.” Besides the selective use of lo-fi recording and reverb, there’s an interesting layering of sound that creates an amazing texture in the eleven songs here. In this way, the album reminds me a bit of Canadian artist Pat Jordache, who has released records under his own name and collaborated with tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus in their band, Sister Suvi. Credit for the sound also belongs to engineer Brandon Mericle and mixer Scott Goodrich.

The record opens with “Bored,” a jumpy up-tempo track celebrating the collapse of civilization. “I think Ishmael might be right, I think we might be dying out / The earth is caving right in, our pres is celebrating / The kids are calling it quits, there ain't no future in this at all,” Schmidt sings. Crazy conspiracy theories plaguing our nation are referenced, too: “Sayonara my friend, I see those toes dangling off the edge / Of the western flat earth, I'll take a big plate of dirt / Then wash it down with some oil, and make a helmet of foil.” The song is anything but boring, with its big bold sound. The guitar tone is amazing, almost growling, the bass line is running up and down like mad, and the high-pitched backing vocals are amazing.

One really nice touch that adds to the texturing of these songs is the miscellaneous percussion. There’s more than just a standard drum kit in action. That’s all Shane Hendry’s doing. Hendry’s played in a number of bands, including Eskara, From Scars, and Reunions, and Schmidt, after initially planning to do the drums himself, decided to turn to Hendry, who readily agreed. “I sent Shane the demos without drums and he sent them back with his better versions,” says Schmidt. “When he sent back ‘Hot Summer’ it had crazy bongo drums and other auxiliary percussion on it. I remember just hearing it and texting Shane telling him, ‘more of that please.’ Shane put auxiliary percussion all over all the songs and it completely changed the whole record in the best way possible.”

Even more than the other songs, “New Day” reminds me of Pat Jordache, particularly the layering of sound and the way the melodic line is constructed. The acoustic guitars, the various percussion instruments bouncing around, and the overdubbed vocals add together to create sensory overload in the best way. Its message is one of fatalism, with lyrics talking about how “There's no point in fighting if it's something you cannot win / The night falls, the wind blows, the sun brings a total new day.” It’s one of my favorites of the record. The lead single, “Escape Artist,” underneath the layered production, is at its heart a great power pop song, with loads of hooks. “This song is about needing to step away from the world and allow yourself time away from everything,” says Schmidt. “We all need breaks and especially during a time like the one we are currently all in." “Like A Cult” has an interesting Latin sound to it, while “Vietnam” is a quiet song with acoustic guitar and big vocals that are pulled back in the mix, sounding far away. The lyrics reference the idea of just quitting everything, packing up, and moving far away (to Vietnam). “Social Me” is a scathing indictment of social media and the trolls that inhabit it, I really love the chorus on this song, in particular, with the rapid strumming guitar technique that’s used, and the thick layering of sound.

This may be one of those “unpopular opinions” that people like to post on social media, but I honestly think Ricky’s solo LP is better than either his work with Western Settings or Hey, Chels. I really like these songs; they’re pretty different from a lot of the sameness happening out there.

SWANS – Children of God / Feel Good Now (Young God Records, www.younggodrecords.com / Mute Records, www.mute.com)

Swans are rereleasing a newly remastered edition of their fifth studio LP “Children of God.” Originally released in 1987, “Children of God” saw its last reissue in 1997, packaged together on CD with “World of Skin,” an LP released in 1988 under the band name “Skin,” a collaboration of Swans’ Michael Gira and Jarboe. “Feel Good Now” compiles live recordings from Swans’ 1987 European tour, and was originally released in that year, seeing its only reissue back in 2002. By 1987, Swans had already transitioned away from their earlier era of intense grinding noise and pounding beats into something no less experimental, but much more accessible, with droning melodies, vague ethnic sounds, tribal rhythms, and ethereal choirs, plus Gira’s ever-present basso profundo vocals. You can hear this transition in the opening track, “New Mind.” It has an intense, crashing beat and a noisy two-chord drone, but this is less noise and more music than earlier releases. And rather than shouting, Gira’s booming vocals are intoning the lyrics. Lyrics on this album revolve around the contradictions of human existence, sin and forgiveness, redemption and hell, sex and damnation vs. love and salvation. After the bombastic opening track, “In My Garden” is quiet and ethereal, piano and flute playing over a throbbing guitar, while soprano vocals ring out breathy words that feel almost like a magical incantation for immortality. “Our Love Lies” is a dirge in waltz time, a plea to God to have mercy and a declaration of belief in love. Much medieval liturgical music was in three-four time, because it represented the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, so important in the Catholic church, and the vocal chorale of this song represents the divine, while the wailing guitars and crashing percussion seems to represent the sinning nature of humanity. I’m fascinated by “Sex, God, Sex,” which encapsulates these contradictions. “I will pray. I will pray. I will go down low, and I will pray to you,” and then “I will beg you Lord. I will deny myself, I will deny you Lord. Though I’ve done nothing wrong never in my life, no no no no no. I will beg you Lord, and I will pray for you to forgive me now.” At once believing in the need for forgiveness while also believing that what some call our “sins” are not that, it’s the conundrum of human existence. “Blood and Honey” drips with sensuality and foreign mystery. “Like a Drug (Sha La La La)” has the droning vocals of mid period Current 93 mixed with the martial rhythms of Der Blutharsch. It’s one of the noisier tracks of the LP, too, representing that transitional period I mentioned, bleats and blats interjecting throughout the track. I love the military bombast of “Beautiful Child,” sounding dark and fascistic, an incessant drumbeat accompanied by a twisted fanfare. The lyrics are equally twisted, with Gira first shouting about the titular beautiful child, declaring his love for this child and how he will hold him in his arms, but then declaring with equal assurance, “Listen to him cry. I can kill the child, the beauti¬ful child. I will kill the child, the beautiful child.” I liken this to so-called populist/nationalist leaders who declare their love of country, but who, upon attaining power, systematically destroy the thing they claim to love. Sound familiar? It’s, unfortunately, a recurring theme of our species. There’s the pair of tracks, “Real Love” and “Blind Love,” with the former being a warmer song about the worshipfulness of love, and the latter a very mechanical sounding track, the lyrics of which refer to the neediness that can lead to “fake love.” The closing track is the title track, and is a bright chorale, “We are special, we are perfect. We were born in the sight of God,” the vocals intone; “Our suffering bodies will suffer no more. We are children, children of God.”

The live LP, “Feel Good Now,” which accompanies this reissue, contains live recordings of most of the tracks from “Children of God.” But being Swans, the live recordings bear little resemblance to the studio recordings. For example, “Blind Love,” which opens the performance (after a brief “Intro”), is a lengthy improvisation over the mechanical beats, the lyrics not present or buried beneath the power of the instrumentals. This is Swans reverting to the industrial noise of their past. “Like a Drug (Sha La La La)” is powerful and noisy, more like an enormous factory floor than a martial rhythm, all sorts of grating and crashing noises going on, and the vocals sound darker and more evil than the chanting of the studio recording. The track builds and builds, getting noisier and more intense; it’s breathtaking. I’ve never had the opportunity to see Swans live, but it’s clear that they use the written songs as just a starting point, a suggestion, and the live performances are freer and more improvised than a lot of music. It must make for an intense show-going experience. Plus, I’ve been told they’re one of the loudest live bands ever. The performances on the live recording are much more intense than those on the studio album. “Beautiful Child” opens as noisily as any of the early Swans cuts in this live performance, before settling into the martial beat, but here there’s more clanging and shouting, a loud declaration as if the convince others when one doesn’t believe oneself. Here, too, the beats sound more mechanical, like the music of the neo-futurists, industry moving incessantly. I think the studio versions of these songs are more nuanced, and have more varied textures. I can see the allure of a live Swans performance, though. The sheer intensity can bring about an altered state of being.

ANXIETY SPIRAL – Demo (Knife Hits Records, www.knifehitsrecords.com)

Brutal, thrashy hardcore attacks you right from your speakers, showing no mercy, as this self-recorded four-song demo explodes with rage. Three of the tracks are the expected sort of hardcore sound, fast and loud, dark angular chord changes, and angry shouted lyrics. And as good as those are, one track stands out above the others, “The Lobbyist.” It’s a quickstep waltz with awesomely dissonant guitars, pounding drums and rumbling bass, and the back half gets all eerie and mysterious sounding, an evil noise backing an ominous lecture about the dangerous mind control capabilities of the Internet. I wish this release wasn’t quite as lo-fi as it is, because this deserves to be herd more clearly.

THE CRIBS – Night Network (Sonic Blew Records, www.thecribs.com)

In 2017 The UK band The Cribs released their LP, “24-7 Rock Star Shit,” recorded by Steve Albini. It became their fourth consecutive UK Top Ten album. The band, who had earned multiple Q and NME awards, quickly parted ways with their longtime management company, but soon found that the legal implications meant they were unable to record or tour. It almost ended the band. But a year later, the band was asked to open for Foo Fighters at Eithad Stadium in Manchester. They were discussing their woes with their new friend, Dave Grohl who simply told them to come to L.A. and record in his studio. Now, three years later, even with the band scattered across great distances (Portland, Oregon, New York City, and the UK), they’re back with “Night Network,” their eight full-length LP. And even though they’re a modern rock band playing music in 2020, you can hear the Beatles’ influence in some of these songs. They sound like someone took power pop and tried to engineer it into sounding more like indie rock. Listen “Running Into You,” the second song of the LP, and you’ll see what I mean. The hooks are very 60s, but the engineering gives the guitars a very buzzy fuzzy Jesus and Mary Chain sort of sound. And “Screaming In Suburbia,” even though it’s a slower number with a ballad-ish feel (though it’s mid-tempo, not slow), feels like it’s got mid-period Beatles sounds underneath the production. I like “Goodbye,” the track that opens the LP. It opens with a vocal chorale, oddly distorted music underneath, and once the song gets going it’s got a retro 60s pop feel, full of reverb and sadness, Beach Boys style melody and harmonies. The distorted guitar line slays me. I also like “I Don’t Know Who You Are,” a track that starts cleanly and gets more and more distortion as it evolves toward the end. There’s a heavily distorted guitar lick that’s repeated over and over that sends chills through my body, too. Besides these few songs, I just can’t get into this, despite repeated listening. There’s too much sameness, too little variety in the sound. The tempos of every song are pretty close to each other, there’s little dynamic change. It’s OK, I guess. I guess?

THE FLAT FIVE – Another World (Pravda Records, www.pravdamusic.com)

Well, isn’t this just a little ray of sunshine to light up the bleakness of 2020? The Flat Five are a group of Chicago musicians, including Kelly Hogan and Nora O'Connor (Neko Case, The Decemberists), Scott Ligon and Casey McDonough (NRBQ) and Alex Hall (J.D. McPherson). These in-demand musicians stole time away from their other endeavors over a more than one-year period to put together this eclectic collection of pop, jazz, and country tunes. And while they aren’t going to set the world on fire, they’re light and pleasant, just the antidote for these dark times. “Drip a Drop” is a blend of pop, rock, and a touch of R&B, with a retro AM radio flair. I adore the breezy jazz tune, “Look at the Birdy, sounding like something right out of a smoky club from the 1950s. “I Don’t Even Care” is another pop tune, with a cute bounce and rays of 70s sunshine and rainbows. We even get a heartbreaking country folk tune in “The Great State of Texas,” a pretty waltz played on piano, bass, and brushed drums with harmonica accompaniment. It’s a song of farewell, recounting all of the things the narrator will miss, particularly their dearest love, as the day of execution at the prison arrives in the “great” state of Texas. Another waltz is the pretty, jazzy “Girl of Virginia;” the bass harmonica that’s used to punctuate some of the phrases is quite effective, and the piano and brushed drums are lovely. “Butterflies Don’t Bite” sounds like something right out of the Herb Alpert catalog, with its Latin jazz aesthetic, with marimba underneath the trumpet. “Over and Out,” which closes the LP has a bit of Latin jazz, too, but seems more to be the sort of easy listening pop that was popular in the 1960s. Overall, like I said, there’s nothing striking or groundbreaking here, but it’s a nice breath of pleasant fresh air to take one’s mind off all the ills swirling around us, an escape.

GOINGS – It’s For You (Know Hope Records, www.knowhoperecords.com)

After last year’s three-song EP, this is the debut full-length LP for this Philadelphia band. And the band is a conundrum. Some of these tracks are brilliant, sparkling mathish pop music, while some of them are very slick-sounding commercial pop music. And some tracks are both. For example, the opening track, “Phone Numbers,” has some great math-like rhythms and the bright keyboards add a shimmer to the song. But the gliding harmonized vocals are a little too slick for my tastes. “Blue Sky,” on the other hand, is one of the best tracks of the LP, with sections of nice indie pop and sections of intense instrumental gymnastics. The vocals in the more animated sections are quite enthusiastic. “Trying-Dying” sounds like a modern indie updating of an 80s new wave song, which is kind of odd. I’m not sure the synth tone selected for the song quite goes with the melody, sounding more like cheap sci-fi than pop. And “Haircut” stands out from the rest of the tracks, but not in a good way. This track sounds too much like commercial pop music; with a slightly funky melodic line, it sounds like something a boy band might perform. I do enjoy “It’s For You,” with its flittering guitars and breezy melody. “Elevator” is an interesting track that has parts that sound like dull adult contemporary rock and parts that are rhythmically challenging and brilliant. So, overall it’s a mixed bag – the musicianship is amazing and some of the arrangements are exciting and demanding of the listener’s attention, while other parts are uninspiring and characterless.

HOMECAMP – Did We Return As Something Else (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)

I’ve commented before on the consistency and care with which Wiretap boss Rob Castellon curates the bands for his label. But Homecamp is completely different from anything Wiretap has put out, and unlike anything you’ve likely listened to on a regular basis. Big emotional melodies ebb and swell, with synths, faux strings, and sometimes piano providing the primary instrumentals. Boy-band style harmonization is featured in the vocals. The result bears no relationship to punk, pop punk, post punk, indie rock, or any of the related genres we’ve come to expect from Wiretap’s growing stable of bands. Instead, this is big ballad-like pop rock, the kind of stuff you might see someone perform on a darkened stage with just a spotlight on them, maybe with superimposed video of waterfalls and other natural surroundings. Kind of the new age of emo-pop? And it’s not just a couple of slow songs and a few faster ones – it’s all the same sort of ambient emo-pop ballad stuff. I really could not get into this.

THE JUNIOR LEAGUE – Fall Back + Summer of Lies (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)

“Summer of Lies” is a 4-song EP released digitally earlier this year and “Fall Back” was originally released a decade ago under the name of the force behind The Junior League, “ Joe Adragna. What we get here are the EP plus a bonus song (a cover of The Beach Boys’ “’Til I Die”) and the LP, remixed, remastered, resequenced, and in some cases rerecorded, and there are a couple of bonus songs here, too. The sounds are actually quite varied, ranging from jangly retro pop rock to more modern indie sounds and singer-songwriter fare. My favorites are those more retro jangly songs, like the opening track, “You’re Gonna Die Alone.” The guitar jangle reminds me a bit of The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” but this song has hints of twang, too, and the deep growling bass is cool. “Leave Me Resigned” is another with that British Invasion sound, but tempered with some more modern indie and a clear singer-songwriter vision. The title track from the “Fall Back” LP has a gorgeous lush sound, and the guitar sound is spot on. This one actually makes me think about the fall, with cooling temperatures, leaves changing colors, and cloudy skies. “Depot Park” reminds me of a pared back remix of something J. Robbins (Jawbox, burning Airlines) might have written but as the song evolves it gets thicker and richer, adding more instrumentation, including piano and violin. “Like Nothing Else” has a 70s folk-rock sound, and a jazzy feel added by the gorgeous Fender Rhodes sounding keyboards and flute-tuned synths. Those are the songs that stand out the most to me, with the rest being solid indie songs, if a little on the softer side.

The “Summer of Lies” EP, recorded a decade later, has more twang in the songs, yet still has a retro pop flair, as can be heard on the opening track, “Summer of Flies.” It’s got more than a hint of 60s pop and a bit of country in the mix, but there’s a high-pitched guitar buzzing around, I guess supposed to represent the flies? It’s annoying, but then, so are flies. “Make Up Your Mind” has a 70s protest song vibe that’s been softened. “Out On The Side” creates a quiet gospel atmosphere, and “Didn’t Want to Have to Do It” is lounge-jazz-pop. As far as that Beach Boys cover, I could have done without it. It’s the weakest track of the bunch, in my opinion, with multi-tracked harmonized vocals and keyboards/synths. It sounds like it was recorded as an afterthought, and the vocal mixing doesn’t sound right. But overall, The Junior League is a pleasant listen: pop sounds with a soft edge.

MORAL MAZES – Gold Beach Fortress (Rad Girlfriend Records, www.radgirlfriendrecords.com, Little Rocket Records, www.littlerocket.co.uk)

Moral Mazes is the new band featuring members of Jawbox, Office of Future Plans, and Airstream Futures, with Jeff Dean on guitar, J. Robbins on bass, and Darren Zentek on drums. The band uses a rotating roster of guests for vocals, with Jonah Matranga featured on their previous release and Michael Feerick on this one (their Facebook page also lists Bob Nanna, so perhaps there’s another couple of songs awaiting a future release?). The two songs here are lush indie rock, with full guitars, tough drums, and smooth, dreamy vocals. The A-side is the title track, a mid-tempo rocker with dense, luxuriant guitars and ethereal vocals. The B-side track, “Illinoise by Numbers,” is slower, dreamier, yet with a more deliberate beat, and I think the better of two excellent tracks. We need more than singles, though…

SPENCER CULLUM’S COIN COLLECTION (yk Records, www.ykrecords.com)

That this debut LP sounds like the psychedelic folk-pop music of 1960s and 1970s Great Britain is not a surprise, because Nashville resident Spencer Cullum relocated there from London (by way of Detroit). He spends much of his time as an in-demand studio musician for the likes of Kesha, Caitlin Rose, Deer Tick, Miranda Lambert, and Little Big Town. But now, Cullum is emerging from studio anonymity to focus on music of his own. “I wanted to write a very quintessential English folk record, but with really good Nashville players." Cullum says. And if you’ve ever watched English neo-pagan films of the 1970s, such as The Wicker Man, you’ll realize that Cullum has succeeded. Blending both acoustic guitar and electric steel guitar, Cullum creates that psychedelic neo-pagan folk atmosphere, and you feel transported. The waltz time opening track, “Jack of Fools” is a perfect example of this, Cullum’s vocals singing softly and casually. And the obsession with nature that was contained in the British neo-pagan movement, mirroring the island’s religious beliefs of the pre-Roman Celtic tribes, comes through in the opening of “To Be Blinkered.” The track opens with the sounds of birdsong, before the quiet acoustic guitar, piano, tapping percussion, and smooth subtle vocals begin. It’s quietly gorgeous. “Imminent Shadow” crosses psychedelic folks with quiet acoustic sounds a la Nick Drake, and is one of the prettiest songs on the LP, with flute and bass clarinet swelling and ebbing in the background as the acoustic guitar plays a winding melodic line. There are some sounds that are somewhat different, lest you think this is a one-note album. “Tombre Enmorsheux” is less psychedelic folk than it is straight up 70s light pop music, while “Dieterich Buxtehude” is an ambient instrumental track with some 70s prog rock aspects, and “The Dusty Floor” transforms from psychedelic folk to a Pink Floyd inspired rock song at the halfway mark. If you’re looking for something calming to listen to this winter while curled up in front of the fireplace, this would be a good record to include in your playlist.

 


THE CASKET LOTTERY – Short Songs for End Times (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com / Second Nature Recordings, www.secondnaturerecordings.com)

This is the first new LP from The Casket Lottery since 2012’s “Real Fear.” And that LP was released in their short-lived 2012 reunion, their previous release coming in 2003. The first few songs of this newest LP are nothing short of outstanding. They’re a throwback to 90s post-hardcore and post-emo, with a huge sound, lots of angular yet smooth chord changes, and plenty of meter shifts. I love the opening track, “You Are a Knife.” It’s powerful post-hardcore, with angular guitar stabs, a throbbing bass line, and jutting meter changes. Vocals are sung/shouted with intensity. The whole package reminds me of some of the bands I used to love back in the 90s. Even better is “Big Heart Closed Mind,” which is no less powerful, but is smoother and more melodic and has more meter changes, and the guitar lines are gorgeous. “More Blood” goes a step further in making things smoother and less acute. It still packs an emotional wallop, though. Some of the songs are less my taste, however, sounding more like the overblown, slick “emo” of the 2000s. “Sisyphus Blues” falls into this category, a quieter, smoother angst-filled song. “Unalone” is even quieter and smoother, and even less my taste. A number of the songs lie somewhere between these extremes, though, such as “Trust As a Weapon.” It has some of the angularity and meter changes, but it’s also got a silkier, more polished sound. Same thing with the closer, “Sad Dream,” which has a bit of jangle in it, smoothness, yet some angularity. I really wish there were more songs like those few I really liked, because those were excellent. I do feel that fans of 2000s post-emo are going to eat this up, because it definitely is better than the run of the mill 2000s emo band.

DEENA – Some Days (www.deenashoshkes.com)

New Jersey singer/songwriter/rocker Deena Shoshkes of The Cucumbers has released a couple of LPs now under her own name, and now we get this new single, featuring two new songs, “Dance The Night Away” and “Thursday.” The A-side is a classic retro rocker with a bluesy country edge, while the B-side is more of a classic rock song, but still with a bit of blues mixed in, kind of like a Rolling Stones song. Both are smooth and light, maybe a little too light, but they’re pleasant and bouncy enough.


DIVIDED HEAVEN FEATURING LYDIA LOVELESS – They Poisoned Our Fathers (Smartpunk Records, www.smartpunk.com)

Two of great singer-songwriters team up on this new single from Divided Heaven. Jeff Berman, the driving force behind Divided Heaven, and Lydia Loveless, who recently released an amazing album of her own (see further down in this column for that review) bring us a powerful song that’s not only an anti-Trump protest song, but it’s also a heart-wrenching song about the generational divide that’s alienating parents and children from one another. There are lyrics referencing the use of fear to motivate voters, and how fear turns to hatred, about how religion and patriotism have been turned into nothing more than tools to control a population. The numbness that society now has to mass shootings, lives worth less than in death, and a driving profit motive for everything are all decried. But even more distressing are the lyrics about how the fear and hatred have infected our older family members, negative emotions motivating their decisions, and the chorus that declares, “There ain’t enough love / There ain’t enough to change your mind / There ain’t enough love to change your mind / Have I failed you like the way that you failed me? / There ain’t enough love.” Berman and Loveless’ vocals complement each other perfectly, and the music is what we’ve come to expect from Divided Heaven, loaded with emotion. It’s been a couple years since Divided Heaven’s last LP came out, and this timely single makes me yearn for a new one.

THE GOALIE’S ANXIETY AT THE PENALTY KICK – Ways of Hearing (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, countyourluckystars.limitedrun.com)

The Philadelphia band with an impossibly long name and impossibly large roster (six to seven members!) are releasing their debut LP, and it features ten quietly lush songs. The first track, “An Olive Coat,” reminds me of Slint, but with dueling male and female vocals winding around each other, and with violin weeping a counter-melody. The song starts with quiet breathy vocals over subtly jangly guitar. The violin comes in, as do keyboards, drums, and another guitar, yet despite the number of instruments playing, the song still feels hushed. “We Love You So Much” follows, with the same sense of stillness, but it slowly builds, the violin soaring. I really like the mostly acoustic “The Best of all Possible Worlds,” which is an understated pop song, delicate plinks from a keyboard punctuating the melody. I adore the contrasting vocals on this song, with the male lead almost whispering and the female lead more emphatic. “The Cat Stands On My Arm” is gorgeous and fairly even until we get two thirds through, when it suddenly builds, and the distorted guitar harmonics fill the space, the violin getting more intense, and the whole thing creating a huge dreamy soundscape. The whole album is like this, very understated, very pretty, with those wonderfully contrasting vocals. I like this.

HOUSEGHOST (Rad Girlfriend Records, www.radgirlfriendrecords.com / Cat’s Claw Records, catsclawrecords.bigcartel.com)

While one would think from the band name and the cover art that this Dayton, Ohio band are a seasonal one-trick spooky punk band, nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, there are some songs that reference some eerie things, but take a closer look at the cover. Those jack-o-lanterns are smiling and cuddling. And the songs are more about typical pop punk themes of loneliness, depression, isolation, and self-loathing, which can be scary enough when you’re trying to make your way through life. Musically, the songs range from driving punk rock to bouncy pop punk, from pop to near hardcore. That said, that opening track, “Book of Shadows,” sure opens on a dark theme, and then turns into a killer of a driving punk track, dark and briskly brooding. I really like “Darling,” which reminds me of a brighter, poppier Marked Men. “Hollow Hallway” is an excellent retro pop song with a rocking edge. I like the mix of goth punk and hardcore on “Marceline,” giving it a cool retro 80s sound, while “Zozo” is a great hardcore track with just the right amount of melody and pop bounce. “In a Box” is even harder edged, but then we also get the slower, poppier “Deep Inside Your Heart,” which is almost the pop punk equivalent of a romantic crooning song. If Houseghost ever decide to rearrange and rerecord some of their songs, this would perfect to slow down considerably and smooth out; it would be so sad, with lyrics about a person with a heart of stone living life alone. “Yellow Wallpaper” is the least punk track of the LP, starting with a thinner quieter sound, then midpoint turning into a big dreamy shoegaze track. The closing track is a cover of The Cure song “Boys Don’t Cry,” and it will make you wonder why it wasn’t recorded this way to begin with! It’s more thickly arranged than the original, with a great wall of sound from the guitars, and the tempo is just a tick quicker, giving the song a bouncier feel. One of the things that make this record such a good listen is the variety. Not only are there differences in the basic sound of the various tracks, the trading off of lead vocals between the brother and sister duo of Nick and Kayla Hamby, the founders of Houseghost, keeps things varied and interesting. Varied and interesting are always good.

LOVE TRACTOR (Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records, www.hhbtm.com)

In the early 1980s, as the first wave of punk rock died out and gave way to hardcore, there was also the rise of college radio and indie rock. Nowhere was this scene more focused than in Athens, Georgia, where the B-52’s had already made a name for themselves, and R.E.M. was beginning to make waves. One band that also came to the fore was Love Tractor, formed in 1980 by fellow art students Mark Cline, Michael Richmond, and Armistead Wellford. Their debut self-titled LP was released two years later on Georgia indie label DB records, which had also released early records from the B-52’s, Pylon, Chris Stamey and others. Heading into the studio to record what was supposed to be their first single, they worked so fast that they just kept on laying down more tracks, essentially playing them “live” just as they would at a show. When they reached eleven songs, they stopped, and their debut album was ready. Though the band would eventually grow to include vocals, their early material was fully instrumental. You can hear hints of the new wave sounds of the day in the melodies, and you can hear the first beginnings of the guitar jangle that would morph into indie rock and indie pop. Though Love Tractor were a distinctly different band than contemporaries The B-52’s, who played new wave party pop, I can hear some of the same bass and guitar sounds in some of these songs. Listen to “Buy Me A Million Dollars,” the first track, and tell me you don’t hear it. Being an instrumental band, the tracks aren’t “songs,” but can be thought of as sonic art. The result is that the album is more “cerebral” than an album of songs. The lyrics of a song often tell you what to think about the song, but when it’s instrumental, you have to think about it more, immerse yourself in the music, and let it set a mood. I find it fascinating that “Sixty Degrees Below,” which one would think would sound frigid, instead sounds sunny and warm. “Motorcade” has an air of mystery mixed with the sounds of pomp and self-importance. I love the segments when the bass and guitar play in unison, the bass playing a rising line. And the funky pomposity of the other segments is fun. The synths play an X-Files sounding theme, too, adding to the mysteriousness. And the album sequencing is done well, too. As “Festival” fades out, then “Cowboy Songs” begins, I’m stricken by how well they go together, the rock solid tempo of both being the same, and the bass lines being complementary. The bright jangle of the guitar in the latter song and the angular bass make it a favorite. “Wheel of Pleasure” definitely gives the sense of spinning and whirling, and I really like “Chilly Damn Willy,” a song named for the famous cartoon character. The guitar lines are hard to describe, but the jangle is great, and the tune is full of different hooks. The music on this LP may not be the party music of The B-52’s, and may not have had the indie-rock impact of R.E.M.’s songs, but Love Tractor had enormous influence in the early days of the Athens scene, making this an essential LP.

PUP – This Place Sucks Ass (Rise Records, www.riserecords.com)

I was supposed to see PUP last spring at their appearance at The Casbah, a small dive of a venue in San Diego with a storied history. PUP never play clubs that small anymore, and it promised to be a sweaty time full of bruises and fun. Then the pandemic hit and shows started getting cancelled or postponed. PUP’s tour was rescheduled to the fall, and I was to see them on a Tuesday night in October. OK, still at the Casbah, it will still be crazy, right? The coronavirus had other ideas, and the tour is now rescheduled for October – of 2021. But all is not lost! PUP came to the rescue of fans with a new six-song EP! I’ve heard some people comment that maybe these are “leftover” tracks from the “Morbid Stuff” LP recording sessions. Whether they are or not, I think this EP is tremendously good. Besides the usual PUP sort of raucous pop punk songs about deep anxiety and personality disorders, we get songs that are constructed a little differently, with more dissonance, more funkiness, even bits of European ethnic folk music! If these are leftovers from “Morbid Stuff,” it’s not because they’re lesser songs, it’s because they didn’t fit, stylistically. I love the differences in these songs, too. The chorus on “Rot,” which opens the EP, is standard enough PUP material, but the verses and bridge are more dissonant, less melodic, harder and darker. And isn’t it great? “Anaphylaxis” opens with shrieking dissonant guitars, and then becomes a crazy off-kilter waltz, with a twisting time signature and skipped beats, sounding like a rock and roll folk song from deep in central Europe, but played by angry musicians. It’s all a frenzy, and you can feel the disorientation of someone suffering from anaphylactic shock. “I never knew I was anaphylactic,” the song begins, “I took the medicine, it wasn’t working.” You can feel everything spinning out of control, as the song recounts every bad thing that results, including a trip to the hospital to get pumped full of chemicals. “A.M. 180” is an uncharacteristically “pretty” song for PUP, with smooth vocals in the verses, guitars jangling. But the instrumental chorus is big and fuzzed out, even as it has a poppy bounce. And it’s a sappy love song, to boot, about doing everything and nothing, as long as it’s together. “Whatever, together,” the outro repeats. The closing track is the shortest, the most intense, and the best, in my opinion. It’s called “Edmonton,” and I wanted it to be a little longer. NOMEANSNO style angularity and funky bass join with dissonant guitars and manic vocals, twisted lyrics about singing songs about killing your friends, getting up on stage and performing, feeling guilty later, getting drunk and leaning on the urinal thinking about missing birthdays and funerals. Are you guys OK? Well, hopefully OK enough to keep pumping out more great records like this one.

REAL(S) – D.L.S.B. (Music As Insurgent Art Records, www.facebook.com/Musicasinsurgentart)

London’s REAL(s) has been dropping singles for a year and half, and now present their debut LP. D.L.S.B. is “Deep Love Song Bomb,” is not just the name of the LP, it’s the art collective the group founded, as the band’s bio says, “to use all forms of art & creativity, combined with a collection of philosophies including Lorca’s Duende & DaDaist surrealism, seeking to highlight the inconsistencies and cracks in the facade of reality, conjuring a breaking in the chains of our past so we might step into a future that has long been unclaimed.” OK. Music As Insurgent Art are releasing this LP in conjunction with Dirty Water Records, which is know for putting out the best garage and sleaze rock on their side of the Atlantic. So I expected something gritty and primitive. And the opening track, the appropriately titled “Sleazer,” met and exceeded my expectations. Noisy, lo-fi, rocking garage music came out of my speakers…but with a difference. Amidst the distortion was a bouncy pop song, and layered in with the feedback and sonic muck were interesting electronic effects, like a garage band on an acid trip making art. “Stop Freaking Out” continues the journey, still rooted in garage rock and pop, but the spacey feel gets amped up even more, and this song reminds me of Ohio’s great psych-punk garage rock band, Vacation. I like, too, the retro inspired “Wilhelm Scream,” with hints of 50s doo-wop in the melodic line, but with garage rock sensibility and an acid-trip psychedelic veneer over the whole thing. Things take a major turn with “Up The Slopes,” which has a much more retro 80s art rock sound, with cool spaced out meanderings and sparkling synths. Two-thirds through the track it resolves into a dreamy pop song, with overloaded reverb and distortion, epic horns blaring a fanfare-like sound. “From The Seed” blends 80s Joy Division/New Order with modern indie and dream pop sounds to create an original sound, while “Dark Web Messiah” takes the dreaminess to new levels. The B-side songs continue the themes of combining retro art rock, post-punk, psych, garage rock, and dream pop, with different amounts making up each track. “M.I.C. Blasters” brings back some of the raucousness of those first couple of garage rock tracks while maintaining a strong dose of post punk, while the closer, “For Al Eternity,” has some very eerie background jingly music and whispered voices in the introduction, while the song itself is pretty retro pop, with an ordered chaos to the chorus. REAL(s) provide an LP that’s both familiar sounding and fresh, varied yet consistent. I can’t wait for more.

SCIENCE MAN – Science Man II (Big Neck Records, www.bigneckrecords.com)

Science Man is the alter-ego solo project of John Toohill, utilizing drum machine, guitar, and vocals. Wait, that came out sounding too sterile. Science Man is noisy, messy punk fucking rawk! From the greasy garage of “Top of the Crown” and “Brazilian Napkins,” to the manic punk noise of “Hit the Switch” and “Into the Rift,” this is intense stuff. The drum machine pounds with precision, while the distorted guitar noises cut like a jagged knife, one that’s not so sharp, so it shreds rather than slices. Toohill’s vocals match the ferocity of the music, belted out with the fervor and fanaticism of an unholy preacher. This is the kind of music that’s going to mow down everything in its path, you included. The exceptions to this rule include the penultimate track, ”Keeper of the Wyrm,” which features steel drum rhythms and mysterious electronics providing the image of a clockwork in my mind. It’s oddly relaxing and hypnotic. And the closing track, “The Gift,” which is a slow, pounding song with evil intent. The drum machine pounds at a dirge’s pace, with the bass giving a single note melodic line, the guitar snarling and laughing as Toohil’s shouts a lyrical incantation. When you come out the other side of this record, you’re going to be changed. You will never be the same again. You can’t go back. Not ever.

THELONIOUS MONSTER – Oh That Monster (www.theloniousmonster.com)

The on-again off-again Thelonious Monster is back on again, for the third time. Originally active from 1984 to 1994, then again from 2004 to 2011, the band is back with their first LP since 2004’s “California Clam Chowder.” I can’t claim to be well versed in the band’s back catalog or history. Though I’ve often heard the name and thought it a clever play on influential jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk’s name, I never really listened to the band’s output. So I come with no expectations or preconceived notions. And I find that I enjoy the ten songs on the album, and their blend of pop, jazz, and funk. I really enjoy the variety of sounds exhibited, mixing things up and not getting stuck in any one musical rut.

“Disappear” opens the LP with some strong post-punk power, including awesome angular guitar jabs that make it a favorite. The layering of found sounds and electronics toward the end give it an interesting texture. I like the power pop of “Trouble,” and the Beatles-like line in parts of it. “Elijah” mixes surf and western sounds in a cool way “Sixteen Angels” is an awesome jazz-inspired track. I love the smooth guitars and the soaring saxophone. The song has that feel of a smoky club, late night, and cheap whiskey. The track slowly builds in intensity, getting louder and more emphatic, and around the midpoint there’s a dueling saxophone solo, and the guitar joins in with some deep psych licks. The whole thing gets pretty chaotic and free jazz-fusion, and it’s glorious. “La Divorce” has just the sort of L.A. R&B sound you would think it should, sounding like something from a movie soundtrack. I love the bright folk of “Day After Day,” something made possible by the mandolin and acoustic guitars, and toward the end of the song the tenor sax reminds me of Saturday Night Live’s band with a nice bluesy riff. The closing track, “The Faraway,” is epic. It starts out as a quiet folk tune on banjo, goes through an acid trip phase, with weird found sounds, tape looks, reverb and twisted psychedelic melody. The last thirty seconds get big and profound sounding for a huge finish. Love it.

I’m not sure if Thelonious Monster has always had this wonderful variety, but this record sure is fascinating to listen to. It’s a journey through different magical lands, in a sense. I may check out some of the earlier releases now.


ISAAC ROTHER AND THE PHANTOMS – "Witches Brew" (www.isaacrother.com)

Blending together R&B, surf, and horror-garage genres of rock and roll, Isaac Rother and the Phantoms have a spooky new single just in time for the Halloween season. With vocals influenced by Screaming Jay Hawkins, Rother sings of the titular potion, how to make it, and what it’s good for – of course to cure what ails you. The guitar is loaded with reverb, bass and drums pulled back in the mix, with sultry backing vocals, providing an eerie sound. Put this on repeat to scare away the trick or treating kids trying to spread their virus to you!

ARRICA ROSE & THE …’S – Once in a Lullaby (pOprOck records, www.arricarose.com)

I last reviewed music from Arrica Rose a couple of years ago, and most of that record was OK, but forgettable. Except for the last song of the LP, which was a quiet, dreamy mash-up of “Video Killed The Radio Star” and “What a Wonderful World” that floored me. Thankfully, this new single is in a similar vein. Acoustic and electric guitars, piano, and ethereal electronics blend with Rose’s breathy vocals to create a dreamlike mash-up of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the protest songs “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield and “Ohio,” the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song about the Kent State massacre by the Ohio National Guard. The result is a hazy introspective track that examines the ills plaguing our nation and imagining a time or place where the strife and hatred are gone. It’s a timely song, and executed beautifully. The song choices for this mash-up were perfect, with lyrics from “Ohio” pointing the finger at the use of police and federal troops to quell protests against police brutality and murder this year (So we gotta get down to it / Soldiers are cutting us down / Should have been done long ago / What if you knew her / And found her dead on the ground / How can you run when you know). Arrica Rose & the …’s are apparently working on a new EP due early next year, and I hope those songs follow this trend. Simply beautiful.

BIKE THIEFS – Leaking (Stomp Records, www.stomprecords.com)

This punk rock trio from Toronto who don’t know how to spell the plural of “thief” present their debut full-length LP. It gives me a lot of interesting B-52’s vibes, Talking Heads too, and especially the obscure Washington, D.C. 80s art punk band 9353. With just guitar, bass, and drums (Marko Woloshyn, Kris Pandierada, and Andrew Fasken, respectively), the sound is a little thin in places, but the band do extremely well with what they’ve got. A lot of the tracks have interesting angular stop-start instrumentals with hints of new wave mixed with the punk. Woloshyn’s vocals are spoken or shouted (really spoken loudly more than shouted) rather than sung. The lyrics are often repeated and contain wry humor. There’s a song called “Connie’s Got a New Phone,” for example. It opens with some guitar dissonance, then smooths out, with lovely guitar harmonics on the chorus. The lyrics are emphatically spoken, with lines like “No functioning adult should own a pet lizard” and other non-sequiturs. I love “You’re Allowed Your Feelings;” it’s got a great driving bass line and a drum beat that’ll get you moving. Lyrics at times sound like a lecture, sometimes like a huckster salesman, and other times are sung. The instrumentals alternate between sparse punctuation and lush sounds. The stabs from the guitar will pierce your heart and soul. “Financial Cancer” is a chaotic noisy punk track with show tune aspirations, so grandiose it is. “Flyover State” is an outlier, with a dreamy sound and lyrics that are sung. As the song evolves, the instrumentals get bigger and Woloshyn’s vocals get more intense to the point of actual shouting. The result is a fairly emotional song, much more so than the rest of the LP. “Ideas Guy” is another of the more melodic songs, with a leisurely pace and relaxed singing – for the most part; at times the heat gets cranked up nicely, and the use of guitar dissonance is quite effective at developing tension in an otherwise placid track. With their fresh unique sound, Bike Thiefs may not have stolen my bike, but they’ve stolen my heart. <insert rim shot here>

HiGH – Out My Scope (Strange Daisy Records, www.strangedaisyrecords.com / Ashtray Monument, ashtraymonumentcol.wixsite.com/mysite)

NOLA’s HiGH – that could be a complete sentence right there – are back with their third full-length LP, the first since 2017’s “Evil Gene,” which made its way onto my year-end “best of” list. So “Out My Scope” has a lot to live up to. This new LP is certainly more varied than the last one, spanning more genres and sounds. On this outing the band veers somewhat away from the power pop and punk influenced songs and more toward indie rock and indie pop. There’s more variety in tempo and texture of these songs, too. And longtime readers of my Jersey Beat reviews column will know that I love variety. “Oldest Things” opens the LP, and is one of the songs that still do have a punk edge to it, but it’s got cool touches like the guitar solos that sound like they have a sense of humor. “Coupon Neptune” is the most pop punk/street punk track of the LP, and it’s a real blast.

Now to that variety. The songs seem to alternate between faster, harder rocking tracks and slower, quieter ones. I really love “Smartest Things,” a quieter indie track that reminds me of some of the best of 90s indie. “Ten At Zero” is also a slower track, this one reminding me of grunge, but not quite as heavy and thickly arranged. “Bon’s Breath” is an awesome bass-driven track with simple yet cool angular lines in minimalist repetition. “Milkweed” is some lovely indie pop, another ballad-ish track with a quiet intensity. And “Overdrawn” has an amazing jazzy edge to its rock. The closing track, “Crooked,” has a nice poppy bounce to it, and a gorgeous smoothness. And that smoothness is something most of these tracks have in common – they’re smoother and more relaxed than those on “Evil Gene.” They exude more confidence, in that respect. Is “Out Of My Scope” a “better” album than “Evil Gene?” They’re different, and they’re both really good. This is recommended.

KNEELING IN PISS – Music For Peasants (Anyway Records, www.anyway-records.com)

With a name like Kneeling In Piss, you would have certain expectations for what the band would sound like. And you would be very, very wrong. They’re not punk or grindcore; they’re jangly indie pop! Last year, the band had released “Tour De Force,” their debut full-length. And just before the pandemic lockdown, they released a single and announced a four-song EP, both of which were to be harbingers of another LP to be released later in the year. Well, here we are, and the LP has not come to fruition, perhaps another victim of COVID-19. But we do get another four-song EP, so that’s something. Fronted by Alex Mussawir (formerly of Future Nuns), the Columbus, Ohio quartet (guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards) play light indie pop songs that are a reflections of the banality of everyday weirdoes. On the synth-heavy “Music For Peasants,” which opens the EP, the song seems to be about how people (peasants) seem to be isolated, alienated and alone, and we do things to feel less alone. I like “Pervert Today,” which has a driving booming bass and thick dark guitars with a clean, clear sound. Vocals are delivered in a deadpan style, even as the music gets very emphatic. I think the song may be about the incompleteness of people, as one verse references “Sophisticated but cheap / A piano with no keys / A gun with no trigger / A gun with no trigger.” But we don’t realize it, as another verse says, “I feel right when I’m wrong.” “Sofia Coppola” is another synth-fueled track, with drum machine and keyboards driving the song about wanting to leave Ohio after the recession is over, to work in movies with the actress, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. The closer is an ode to the odd, in “I Love the Avant Garde,” Piano and twangy guitar plunk out a toy-like melody. Yep, Kneeling In Piss was quite a surprise – a good surprise.

MYLITTLEBROTHER – Howl (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)

Recorded in 2019, before anyone had heard of the coronavirus, Cumbrian band mylittlebrother has finally released their sophomore LP. Located in the far northwest of England, just at the border with Scotland, Cumbria is mostly made up of the Lake District National Park, lots of little villages, and the County Town of Carlisle. It seems an unlikely place for an indie-pop band to spring forth, but then, the small towns in the north of England have produced several excellent bands. mylittlebrother trend toward the lighter side of the musical spectrum, playing songs that have tinges of psych and folk rock. The songs glide smoothly and there are few rough edges, musically; it’s all light and airy. Lyrically, the songs get a bit darker than the melodies might imply. “It was largely written during a pretty rough period for me, and it reflects that” says vocalist and primary songwriter Will Harris. “’Howl’ takes you through hope, joy, anger, fear, loss, and ultimately, back to hope again, but all with catchy tunes.” Harris’ vocals remind me of the neo-pagan folk that was coming out of England in the 1970s, for some reason. They have an informal but intentioned sound, and Harris’ northern accent is clearly intact. Songs like the opener, “Play Hard,” have a definite retro 70s psychedelic folk-rock bent and a pleasantly casual tone. Even stronger in that retro 70s sound is “Janey,” one of the album’s lead singles. The other lead single, the album’s title track, “Howl,” blends a bit of bubblegum ballad and Beatles-esque pop into a song of pining for lost love. “ After the first verses explain everything that was wrong with the relationship, a subsequent verse declares, “But if you wanted, I could fall for you again / Just Howl.” The song that really grabbed my attention, though, was “Chicago.” Of course, since that’s where I’m originally from. Its melody cries it for it to be played louder, grittier, and heavier than it is here, at least portions of the song. It’s like a suite in three movements, with the first movement being wannabe metal that should be played with an early Black Sabbath ferocity, the second a gorgeous chorale, and the third is some rock and fucking roll. “Time of Our Lives” reminds me of a more modern version of a Burt Bacharach song with an indie flavor. So bottom line, is this a good record? Well, it isn’t a bad record. I do wish there was more intensity to some of the tracks, though.

POPULATION II – À La Ô Terre (Castle Face Records, www.castlefacerecords.com)

Psychedelic jams fill the ten tracks on this new LP from Montreal’s Population II. The trio give us 45 minutes of mostly instrumental music, punctuated with occasional lyrics in French, but added more as another instrument than actual “songs.” Hypnotic and mesmerizing, some of the tracks are long-form jams while others are short fragments or introductions. Take the spacey trance jams of bands like Amon Duul II or Can, make them harder edged with garage rock sensibilities, and you’ve got an idea of what Population II sounds like on this, their debut LP. “Introspection” opens the LP with a cacophonous scream of instruments, then resolves to a bluesy jam, and evolves into a buzzy, searing guitar fueled rockfest with interjections from a jazzy saxophone. The mysterious sounding “Les Vents” starts smoothly, with beautiful harp creating a very science-fiction-like atmosphere, with the bass walking through the stars, the organ shining brightly. Like other tracks, it evolves, the organ giving way to electric guitar, but not giving up any of the mystery. Halfway through, the guitar takes complete control, plunging into the closest star, the hellish flames burning everything around. Suddenly, the fire is out and we’re again in the coldness of space, near silence broken only by the return of the organ. “Il eut un Silence dans le Ciel” is a frantic caterwauling at the start, that gets a little funky, while “Attraction” is a sultry slow burner. Yes, these tracks are jams, yes, this is “out there,” but it’s damn cool and unlike many jams, it morphs with much variety. If you live in a state where weed is legal, I’m guessing this will be even better under the influence.

RALPHIE’S RED RYDERS – You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out (Radiant Radish Records, radiantradish.storenvy.com)

In one of the most anticipated reunions in a long time, Ralphie, Schwartz, and Flick entered Carbine Action Studios in downtown Hohman, Indiana this past summer to lay down the dozen tracks contained in this first release from the Red Ryders in many years. And it comes just as the holiday season starts to crank up, so the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Guest appearances at this session include Mike, Mark, Reese, Christopher, Donna, Beth, Manny, Randy, Grover, and Scut. Of course, if you’re paying attention, nearly none of the above is true. Mike Patton and friends are giving us another wonderful themed record, just as they do with their Vista Blue records. But this time, we don’t only get a season or holiday to celebrate, we get one of the most beloved holiday movies, based on the stories of American national treasure, the late Jean Shepherd. If you’re familiar with the sounds of Vista Blue (and you should be, really), you’ll know what to expect here: buzzy guitars, bright gleaming keyboards, and harmonized vocals, all done in a Ramonescore meets Beach Boys style. And if you’re familiar with the movie (or better yet, the stories upon which it’s based) you’ll recognize the vignettes that inspired each of these songs. “My Decoder Ring” of course refers to the time Ralphie mailed away to get Little Orphan Annie’s decoder ring and his dismay when he decoded his first secret message. “I Can’t Put My Arms Down” recalls the time Ralphie’s mom got little brother Randy ready to walk to school in the Indiana winter, with so many layers and so much bulk that he literally couldn’t put his arms down. Who can forget the “Bumpus Hounds” that ruined Christmas dinner? There’s a promotional spot for Higbee’s, the department store in Hohman where Ralphie and Randy have a momentous encounter with Santa Claus and his elves. There’s even a song about the anticipation of getting an A+ on one’s assigned homework, the theme about the perfect Christmas gift. The closing track, “Electric Sex,” recalls what’s arguably the most famous scene in the film, the major award won by Ralphie’s old man and displayed proudly in the front window, at least temporarily, to mom’s dismay. The doo-wop captures the confusing longings Ralphie felt as he eyed the Nehi leg lamp. If you’re a fan of Vista Blue, Ramonescore, or A Christmas Story, this is something you gotta hear.

LOVE EQUALS DEATH / THE STATIC AGE – Split EP (Say-10 Records, www.say-10.com)

Say-10, purveyor of records and skateboards, is releasing one of the oddest pairings I’ve ever heard on a split EP. The two tracks from “Love Equals Death” are big, muscular punk rock with loads of whoa-ohs and lots of skate punk energy. The two songs from The Static Age are synth and guitar driven, with a more expansive pop sound, including dark vocals and bright electronics. Taken separately both a good on their own merits. But back-to-back listening to both is jarring.

 


KURT BAKER – After Party (Wicked Cool Records, www.wickedcoolrecords.com)

Ex-pat Kurt Baker is one of the bright lights keeping the flames of power pop lit. The former Leftovers member has been living in Spain, and the records he puts out there with the Kurt Baker Combo have tended to lie a little more toward the pop punk end of the spectrum. But with this, his US-based band, it’s unabashed power pop, and I hear Elvis Costello and Beatles influences in some of the dozen new songs here. These are sparkling and poppy, with tons of hooks. I really love “New Direction,” the song that opens the LP. It’s a mid-tempo loper, and Baker sounds so much like Elvis Costello here it’s eerie. The song is about the realization that, after a breakup, life goes on and can be even better. The chorus has big vocals and the song has a bright sound, like the new outlook on life reflected in the lyrics. “I Like Her A Lot” is another great one, with a fast moving melodic line, lyrics filling every space, and “Waiting For You” has bits of mid period Beatles sounds. The harmonies are spot on and the piano playing the melody is pretty. “Good” is an interesting track, with a reggae feel, crossed with power pop, and lots of Elvis Costello mixed in. “She Don’t Really Love You, Dude” is one of the edgier tracks on the album, with rough and ready guitar tone and a driving beat. The keyboard solo is simple, but works, especially as the baton as handed off to the guitars. And the spoken word in the middle of the track, after the bridge is hilarious: “Hey man, I hate to break it to you, but the fact is, she doesn’t love anybody.” The tongue in cheek bossa nova lounge song, “A Song and a Drink” is nice, too, but more fluff than substance. “Over You” sounds like it could have been written and recorded in the 1980s, and it could have come from the Journey song catalog. The harmonized vocals on the chorus, the melodic line, it’s all there. And “Keep Dreaming” is a lighter song, the chimes giving it a little bit of a holiday feel. These two are the songs I didn’t like quite as much as the others, sounding more commercial and AM pop radio oriented. But this is another solid effort from Baker, and another reason power pop is still a vital genre.

THE LINE – Sour to Punker (ImageArt Records, thelinemusic.bandcamp.com/album/sour-to-punker)

Originally formed back in the 1990s, The Line hail from Orange County, California. And yes, the four-piece are true to their roots, with a strong Orange County 1990s punk sound, though they lean more to the metallic/progressive rock end of the OC punk spectrum than the skate punk end. The songs are mid tempo, with big guitars and dark melodies. Five of the six tracks on this EP were recorded late last year, but one song, “Harmony Do You Miss We,” was written and recorded during the pandemic, the “we” meant to be a reference to the scene unity we’re all missing without shows, hugs, and high fives. That song has a sad yet hopeful sound. “Strange Modesty II” may be the most “punk” sounding track of the bunch, a little poppier and with a faster, brighter feel, while “Modem 2K” is the most outright metal song on the EP. Overall, the songs really don’t do much for me. Modern OC punk isn’t one of my favorite genres, and the gang vocals on these tracks could use a little work – they sound a bit out of tune and a little unenthused.

SKELETON ARMY – GovernMental Disorder (skeletonarmypunk.bandcamp.com)

Skeleton Army is a four piece DIY punk band from the Phoenix, Arizona area, and this is their debut full-length LP. They call themselves “good old punk rock,” and that’s an accurate description. The Southern California/OC old school punk sound is strong with these guys, with speedy songs, simple melodies, and crunchy guitars. The lyrics, too, reflect a mix of the early Orange County punk tradition, ranging from political topics to funny punk. Back before “skate punk” became a different sound in the 1990s and 2000s, it was hardcore made by bands like JFA (also from Arizona), Code of Honor, and others, and Skeleton Army exhibits a lot of that sound. “Fuck the DEA” is probably one of my favorite tracks of the album, blending political and party lyrics with bouncy fun punk rock that reminds me of Chicago’s Slammin’ Watusis. Some of the songs express an old school punk attitude, such as “Go Uck Yourself” (that’s not a typo, thought the lyrics do include the “F”), the chorus of which has the simple lyrics, “Why don’t you just go fuck yourself” repeated. The music is dark, speedy, and hard as nails. And “Motherfucker” is a slower one with a bounce, lots of whoa ohs. The chorus of “You motherfucker” repeated multiple times is sung pretty casually, without bile. Familial dissension is on display in “Ultimate Disappointment,” in which we hear “I’m not sorry, mom / That I don’t believe in your god / I hope you can forgive me / For losing my religion.” This one’s slower and sludgier. As a burrito fan, another favorite is “Killibertos,” a punk rock ode to the corner taco shops all over the southwest (but the best ones are in San Diego). The song is dark, loud, and angry, as it sings about the foods that will “give me a fuckin’ heart attack.” And “Eat Your Vegetables” reminds me of the old satirical straight-edge band, Crucial Youth, who sang songs about practicing good dental hygiene, among others. Skeleton Army isn’t blazing any new trails, of course, but they’re just like your dependable local punk band that you can see open the show when an old 80s punk band comes touring through.

PROFESOR GALACTICO/THE PARANOIAS - Nightmare / Hope To See You Next Year Split EP (My Grito, mygrito.limitedrun.com)

My Grito is a new imprint of Wiretap Records, the LA label that has made a big splash in its mere five years of existence. Co-founded by Wiretap boss Rob Castellon and longtime friend Oscar Toledo, My Grito’s mission is to support Latin/Latinx artists in various mediums, including music, visual arts, comedy, and more. One of their early releases is this split EP from Profesor Galactico and The Paranoias. The “A side” includes five songs from Profesor Galactico, a self-taught musician who blends ska, punk, alternative, and hip hop styles into a unique fusion. His songs range from melodic and bouncy to dark and edgy. I really like “Alien,” his opening song. It uses a Theremin to create an eerie otherworldly effect, and the song alternates between skankin’ and hard-edged post-hardcore mixed with hip-hop. I’m not the biggest ska fan, but the horns on “Move It Or Lose It” are done really well. The track itself is kind of jazzy post-hardcore in places and ska in others, and the harmonized backing vocals are nice and smooth. The “B side” contains four tracks from The Paranoias, self-styled as “your ladies favorite band.” They’ve been playing around the west coast for several years, with a mix of smooth ska fusion, R&B, reggae, soul, jazz, and punk. I really like the smooth mix of ska, Latin jazz and alternative pop in “Next Year,” and “Global Warming” is a hard-hitting song blending metallic rock with surf and horror. Their closing track, “Papeles,” (“Papers”) starts as a pretty acoustic power-pop song that sound like something that could have come from The Beatles. Halfway through it changes into a more modern bouncy indie pop song that recapitulates “Next Year,” but with a very different feel. I’ve always been impressed at the job Wiretap has done with curating the artists on their label, so I’m looking forward to what they do with My Grito. They’re off to a good start.


THE PURPLE WITCH OF CULVER – Eulogy for a Sunbeam (Loantaka Records, www.loantaka-records.com)

Saxophonist Sarah Safaie and producer/ multi-instrumentalist Evan Taylor are back with another new single to be released on Taylor’s Loantaka Records imprint. As with their previous single, “Trig,” which I reviewed a few weeks back, the duo blend jazz, funk, hip-hop, chill-out EDM, and spoken word beat poetry to create something cool and unique. I think I like this new single even more than the previous one. A tribal drumbeat lasts throughout, and the bulk of the song has a sparkly 70s funk mixed with electronics and rock and roll guitar. Safaie’s deadpan reading of the lyrics comes across as stream of consciousness and I love the jazzy horn punctuations that appear throughout the song. This is great stuff.

THE FIRMLY CROOKED - Daren Gratton And The Firmly Crooked (thefirmlycrooked.bandcamp.com)

Daren Gratton previously fronted the long gone St. Louis band The Haddonfields. After that ended, he played solo for a time, but in the last couple of years he’s been playing with Grave Neighbors and The Firmly Crooked, the latter of which is now releasing its debut full-length LP. The songs are, for the most part, solid Midwestern melodic punk rock. The Chicago influence of bands like Pegboy and Naked Raygun is evident, with muscular guitars and a strong melody, but the melodic lines in some of the songs are more modern sounding pop punk. The opening track, “Until You’re Gone,” could have come from Pegboy ca. 1990. There’s loads of power and a slightly dark sounding melody. Gratton belts out the lyrics with an emphatic intensity. And while “Laughing Prophet of Doom” starts out slower and more quietly, it gets bigger and stronger at the halfway mark. “All I Can Remember” has a thick Midwest melodic punk sound, too, mixed with more of a modern pop punk feel. As the album evolves, the punk sound does, too, “Northface” and subsequent songs have a more modern pop feel mixed in with the punk.

There are other sounds on this LP, making it sometimes sound disjoined. “Laughing Prophet of Doom” has hints of Americana tinges to its punk rock. “Always Say Never” is a chill pop punk tune with buzzy guitars, reminding me a bit of Vista Blue. “She’s Groundhog’s Day” has an indie dreaminess to it, with open guitar sounds and bits of jangle underneath.

The least successful song of the album is the solo acoustic “Star Fall Down.” The guitar sounds unfortunately out of tune and Gratton’s vocals sound lethargic and raspy. Likewise, the full-band “So Many Miles” feels thin and tired, needing a boost of energy to get going.

The closing track is the most surprising and most fun. “You Were Never Here” is a pop punk song, played on acoustic guitar, but there are drums here, too. The guitar is played in an almost flamenco style, rapid strumming burning up the speakers. It’s the most different from the rest of the tracks, and is an unexpected burst of brightness.

My favorites, other than that final song, are mostly in the first half of the album, those broad shouldered songs with the more powerful punk sound. Half of the album is solid and strong, but the other half is inconsistent, with a couple of tracks falling short.

HIROKI TANAKA – Kaigo Kioku Kyoku (hirokikyoku.bandcamp.com)

Before I go into detail, just know that this debut solo LP from Hiroki Tanaka is jaw dropping. It’s beautiful and it’s touching. The album’s title translates to “Caregiving Memory Songs,” and the eight amazing tracks document Tanaka’s experience as a caregiver to his grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and his uncle with terminal cancer. The music includes sounds made by meaningful objects, voice recordings of his relatives, and has the structure of hymns and Japanese folk songs. Tanaka has been making music in the Toronto area since his teenage years, and after his experiences caring for his relatives in the same house in which he grew up, he felt compelled to strike out on his own and create these songs as sort of a sonic archive, preserving his own memories and those of his relatives. An interesting touch on the album is that many of the percussion sounds on the record were made by recording objects in the house, including everything from the sound of a cupboard closing to the clinking together of two glasses.

The album opens with “Bare Hallways,” which includes recordings of his grandmother singing something, and then the music begins. It’s delicate, with acoustic guitar, steel guitar, piano, percussion, and some synths. The song is quiet, wispy, and dreamlike, speaking about seeing his grandmother living in her past memories. “Eternal Host” features synths up front, and after an eerie opening, it continues with distorted guitars playing what sounds like a hymn, and falsetto vocals speaking directly to the disorientation of illness. The music resolves into something jazzy and sparkly, bluesy vocals singing about the feelings Tanaka experienced as a caregiver. “Exile from home eternal host / Can’t leave you alone eternal host / Bathe and feed each day eternal host / Dazzle you with shame eternal host / I can’t go on I must go on I’m rolling stones.” The pain is clear in Tanaka’s voice, torn between love for his family and his desire to live his own life.

“Inori Intro” is an astounding short track, mixing field recordings of a traditional Japanese gong with a beautiful vocal choir singing an excerpt from the hymn "Inori" by Genzo Miwa. Just close your eyes when you listen to this one, feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, and be transported to another place. Then listen to the pretty waltz, “Inori,” a song in which Tanaka explains the torn feelings, but this time afraid that if he lets people know his grandmother is reaching the end of her life they’ll take her away from him, “And you’ll forget, you’ll forget me too.” As the music swirls, electric guitar playing and an electrified violin playing a distorted soaring melody, it’s hard not to shed a tear.

“Snowdrop” opens with vocal ambience and a spine-chilling rendition of the Japanese folk song, “Sakura,” punctuated with various sounds, including a cuckoo clock. The bulk of this lengthy track, though, gorgeous ambient music played beneath a recorded conversation someone had with Tanaka’s grandmother, asking her questions about where she grew up, her favorite holiday, and her garden. The snowdrops of the title are the small flowers in the garden, flowers that push their way up through the frozen earth early in the spring. The next track opens with a recording of a Japanese choir woman from the eldercare facility Tanaka’s grandmother stayed in. The song the choir is singing is “Aoi Me No Ningyo,” which translates to “Blue Eyed Doll,” the title of this track. The song seems to be a catharsis, his feelings upon the death of his grandmother, Some of the lyrics reference her coming to North America as a child: “Frightened like a child that sailed to a foreign shore,” and he thanks her for helping him grow as a man, singing, “You gave me the courage to care, and to show / I want to thank you for this blue eyed doll.”

Following this is a short, lovely interlude performed on harp, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” performed by Jacqueline Goring. It’s an ancient liturgical chant, likely dating back to around AD 275, but was collected in the Divine Liturgy of St. James. Performed on the harp it sounds less like liturgical music and more like an ancient folk song. And the ending track is ”Utopia,” a sad song of remembrance when the end has come. The soaring trumpet echoes a life gloriously lived, as Tanaka sings the closing lines, “Thinking there has been no better time / It’s time / It’s time / It’s time / It’s time / It’s time.”

This is a very emotional record, very personal, very devastating, and very beautiful.

DARREN JESSEE – Remover (Bar/None Records, www.bar-none.com)

Easy listening music for the indie generation? Ben Folds Five alum Darren Jessee presents his sophomore LP, following up 2018’s “The Jane, Room 217,” with ten songs of soft, easy, quiet songs. Acoustic guitar and violin choir synthesizer feature prominently in the arrangements, occasionally punctuated by French horns (or more synths) yielding the same aesthetic for today’s graduates from the indie scene to adulthood that our parents and grandparents had from 1001 Strings and Percy Faith. The arrangements range from sparse to full and lush, but the tempos are uniformly relaxed and lazy. Some of the songs might be reasonably successful as singer-songwriter material, but the arrangements and production here give them a sound that’s too close to the modern equivalent of what we used to call “elevator music” or “Muzak.” There’s a feeling of ennui that runs through all these tracks, the vocals sung at such an even keel, seemingly bereft of any emotion. Put this on when you’re having trouble falling asleep.


ANGORA DEBS (Secret Center Records, www.facebook.com/secretcenterrecords)

Angora Debs’ bio calls them “Oakland’s answer to Pete Shelley and Dan Treacy, attempting to write pop songs and smile between meltdowns.” And that’s probably pretty spot-on for this group that play songs that teeter on the edge of punk and power pop. With members located an hour and a half apart in Oakland and Sacramento, California, practicing may be tricky, but hell, the performances on this five song EP show they’re doing just fine. With lo-fi production giving it a garage edge, tons of hooks and loads of jangle, this is brilliant music in the vein of The Buzzcocks. Songs like “B-side” and “Camel Lights” have a mid-tempo lope and a good time rock and roll feel. I really love the manic “Cross Your Fingers,” with a speedier, crazier sound, more punk and more garage, but no less melodic and poppy. Even better is “Photograph,” another banger that reminds me of Radioactivity blended with The Bananas, not surprising since one of the Angora Debs is also in The Bananas. The closing track, “Your Shitty Diary,” is a great pop punk sing-along, and I can imagine being in a little club or DIY space with a bunch of friends, all jumping around and singing this with big smiles on our faces. Angora Debs may be best known as the club that Laverne and Shirley belonged to in the sit-com, but from now on, I’ll know it as a band I want to listen to more and more.

ANTAGONIZERS ATL – Black Clouds (Pirates Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)

The ATL in their name refers to their hometown of Atlanta, yet Antagonizers ATL harken back more to the days of British working class Oi than any music that ever came out of the southern USA. Big sing along punk is the order of the day on this new single, and it’s got a classic sound. Put this on and you’ll feel just like you’re in a pub in 1984 London. The band is tight and play with equal measures of fun and anger, resulting in a great listen.

 

DFMK (La Escalera Records, www.laescaleradistro.com)

The long awaited, oft delayed debut full length LP from Tijuana’s DFMK has finally arrived! Produced by Tyson “Chicken” AnniCharico, better known as the bassist and vocalist of Dead To Me, DFMK’s LP finally came into being with the cooperation of many labels, including La Escalera Records (which is handling distribution), A-F Records, Rad Girlfriend Records, Tiny Dragon Music, Puercords, and Constructivismo Distro. If you’ve been living under a rock, DFMK is simply one of the most dynamic rock and roll bands making music today. Taking cues from punk rock and hardcore, from proto punks like The Stooges and MC5, from garage punk and even The Ramones, DFMK sing songs in Spanish about living life on the edge and in the margins, about nihilism and drug abuse, about hangovers from long nights in shitty dive bars, about broken hearts and good times. Their past EPs were good, but Chicken’s production on this LP has really done the band justice, because it sounds great, and it does an amazing job of capturing the sound and the feeling of the band on vinyl. This is no bullshit, take no prisoners, balls out guerilla rock and roll. Cap’s vocals are shouted and sung with attitude rivaling that of Mick Jagger and with more enthusiasm and élan than the Rolling Stone could ever muster. Songs rang from the powerful and speedy punk fueled songs like “Mal Presentimiento” and “Miedo y Aversion,” to the more mid-tempo good-time rockers like “Donde Apunta la Aguja” and “Year of the Snake,” which closes the LP on an old school metallic note.

That opening track, “Mal Presentimiento,” or “Bad Feeling,” speaks to the nihilism of just living for the moment. “I’ve got a bad feeling, I don’t trust the future, I bet it all for today,” is the refrain in the chorus, and one of the verses includes, “I don’t have any reasons, I only do it for fun / I still have my life, death hasn’t taken it away / I play with my life, ‘cause there is nothing better to do / I play with my life, ‘cause there is nothing to lose.” I mean, how punk is that? Echoes on a theme from Minor Threat are in the song, “Fuera de Lugar,” which means “Out of Step.” The short one minute blast of a song celebrates not being normal, and even references the image on the cover of Minor Threat’s famous record with the line, “I am a black sheep on the outskirts of society / Out of step, It’s where I want to be.”

“Ya No Quiero Ser Punk” is a rager that translates to “I Don’t Wanna Be Punk Anymore,” and it points a damning finger at the punk scene today, driven more by a desire to conform than to be an individual. “I don’t care about today’s fashion trends / Because I am busy being me / I don’t want to be “punk” anymore,” Cap sings, and the last line of the song, “I want to be me, I don’t care about you, I just want to be PUNK.” Make punk gritty and individualistic again! It’s not all doom and gloom with DFMK. They celebrate their hometown of Tijuana with the rocker, “Ciudad de Nadie” (City of No one). It sings the praises of the all night parties, up ‘til dawn, drinking “caguamas” (40 oz beers) and snorting a little blow. And “Frida no es Sofia” (Frida isn’t Sofia) isn’t about a misidentified woman, it’s an attack on “fake news,” the propaganda that spews from the government and the media.

If you’ve never had the chance to see a live DFMK show, you damn well better hope this pandemic goes away soon and they get back to touring, because it’s something not to be missed. If they harnessed the energy emitted by DFMK they could eliminate fossil fuels and solve the climate crisis overnight.

JACO – DOSE (Cornelius Chapel Records, www.corneliuschapelrecords.com)

Jake Waltzman, recording under the Jaco moniker, is collaborating with Cornelius Chapel Records on a trilogy of releases, and this represents the second installment. Though he’s primarily a drummer, Waltzman is a multi-instrumentalist, and steps out of his role in other local bands to front his solo effort, working with friend and band mate Lester Nuby III to forge this forty-some minutes of pop music. Guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards blend together to create smooth, easy pop-rock songs worthy of your local adult contemporary radio station. These are not charged with power, and aren’t going to get you jumping around the room. Instead, these are the sorts of songs to have on in the background when you have your grown-up former indie-kid friends over for a wine and cheese party. Especially the opener, “Bluebird,” which has a loungy, jazzy feel, courtesy of the vibraphone and breezy island beat. “Faberge” and “In the Sea” have pretentions of being power pop tracks, but lack the power to pull it off, and instead are just even keeled pop tunes with nice jangly guitars and smooth synths. Some of the songs have tinges of mild psychedelic influence, like “Outer Space,” with the synths tuned to sound like an organ, so it sounds like a 70s jam. These songs are just too lethargic for my tastes, and really never get me going.

LENNY LASHLEY’S GANG OF ONE – Lenny Lashley’s Gang of One Live (Pirate’s Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)

Not terribly long ago I reviewed a full band album from Lenny, and noted that he was New England’s answer to Bruce Springsteen, playing strong working class rock and roll. Now here he is, as the “gang of one,” performing solo acoustic, live. The ten songs here were recorded in front of a real audience (remember them?) pre-pandemic, at the Button Factory Stage in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. And I know some people cringe at the thought of solo acoustic, especially now, after six months of live streams of people sitting on their couches playing acoustic guitar for us. But I’ve long been a sucker for good singer-songwriter fare, and, if anything, Lashley presents something I like even more than his full band music. There’s a more intimate feel, more heartfelt. Especially in songs like “Judy,” a pleading for a straying love to come home. I don’t know if it’s based on personal experience or not, but it feels like it could be. “Lonesome” drips with devastating sadness and regret. And “Hooligans” is a fun reminiscence of youthful energy and hijinks in the old days of the Boston punk scene. It uses the famous international “olé olé olé” soccer chant to open and close the song (soccer hooligans!), and has lyrics that reference famous Boston venues like the long gone Rat and references hanging out in Central Square (in Cambridge), a punk hangout where The Middle East music venue is. Beyond those references, it’s just about hanging out with your friends and getting into trouble, having the best time of your life. I really love the ballad “Two Robbers,” a song that tells the story of traveling on the road and being accosted by two robbers. It has the feeling of an old song out of the mists of time, perhaps from the Highlands of Scotland. The song’s protagonist defends himself, but the feelings of guilt over having killed someone are there. I do like solo acoustic, and I like this record.

LESLIE PEREIRA & THE LAZY HEROES – Good Karma (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)

After last year’s debut LP, Leslie Pereira and the Lazy Heroes return with their sophomore effort. The dozen songs on offer range from melodic indie rock to bouncy pop, some songs with a near punk edge, others smoother and more relaxed. The album opens with the title track, and it has a great retro sound, feeling like those guitar fueled songs on the edge between punk and power pop that populated the left end of the radio dial in the early days of the new wave. These kinds of songs were a great antidote to the fizzy synth pop that was found everywhere else on the radio. I like the jangle of “If I Could,” a song with a retro 60s pop sound blended with 80s power pop. Another good one is the Latin-flavored “Hot Tamale,” alternating between the smooth bouncy verses and harder edgier chorus and bridge. The big vocals and darker feel of “Slip” remind me of the great band Heart. “Time To Rock” ranges from garage rock to post punk; I especially like the angular guitar breaks that come after the chorus that remind me a lot of some of the post punk sounds of the 80s, and the guitar tone is spot on. “So Hard” is another one with different feels in different parts of the song. It’s got big grungy parts, some sassy seductive parts, and some parts that just rock out. One thing all the songs on this record have in common is a sense of fun. You can tell that the band are having a blast; there’s a sense of snarky sarcasm in the music, loads of attitude, and lots of good times.

SEIZED UP – Brace Yourself (Pirates Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)

There’s been a lot more angry music coming out the last few years, and understandably so. The country and, indeed, the world, have gotten a lot more fucked up, with the rise of far-right fascism and corruption in government, police brutality more out of control than ever, and now a global pandemic. Enter Seized Up, a quartet of seasoned hardcore veterans. Seized Up was formed in Santa Cruz, California in early 2019 with Bl’ast singer Clifford Dinsmore, Fast Asleep guitarist Danny B., Good Riddance bassist Chuck Platt and The Distillers drummer Andy Granelli. And they are pissed off as hell. The eleven tracks on this debut LP are a mix of hardcore and post-hardcore, loud and bitter, angry and dissonant. With songs like “Tent City Exodus,” “Taking Back the Neighborhood,” and “Terminal Disarray,” the band covers topics such as the rising tide of homelessness, growing gentrification causing displacement of entire communities, and the increasing lawlessness of our corrupt politicians and business leaders. The anger is palpable, the songs played loudly and at breakneck speed, chord changes coming with acute angularity, guitars screaming, drums hammering the point. This record is a call to action, a demand to end complacency, and an entreaty to take to the streets and take back what has been taken from us. As the album cover says, “In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.” Seized Up is sounding the clarion call. It’s time for everyone to respond.

THE SLACKERS – Blue (Pirates Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)

New York reggae and rock steady legends The Slackers, who recently signed with Pirates Press to rerelease some of their LPs, have been giving us a few new singles, as well. The latest of these is “Blue,” a classic reggae song, complete with a dub version on the B-side. All the hallmarks of reggae are here, horns, a strong backbeat, and a hazy lazy tempo and feel. The instrumentation feels thin to me, especially compared to the excellent rock steady single they released a few months back. The dub version seems to merely add more reverb and a few tape loops, and doesn’t really change the sound or feel much. I like reggae, but this single didn’t do it for me.

JON SNODGRASS – Tace (A-F Records, www.a-frecords.com)

Jon Snodgrass should need no introduction, but in case you’re new to music, Snodgrass is a founding member of Drag The River, Scorpios, and Armchair Martian. He’s been doing a lot of solo records as well as releasing records with various friends, though, and “Tace” is but the latest. Though this one is not credited as an “and Friends” LP, there are several guest appearances of note, including Stephen Eggerton and Karl Alvarez (Descendents, ALL), Zach Blair (Rise Against, GWAR, The Drakulas) Neil Hennessy (The Lawrence Arms, The Falcon), Joey Cape (Lagwagon, Bad Astronaut), Stacey Dee (Bad Cop/Bad Cop), Mikey Erg (The Ergs, Worriers), and more.

There are some great moments of levity on the LP, such as the opening track, a short conversation about whether someone needs to take a shower before going into the swimming pool, and the closing title track, featuring some cheesy organ and a bit of conversation from the studio. In between there are plenty of punkish Americana songs and good ol’ rock and roll. I like “Bad New Lands,” a pretty powerful, raucous song. It’s got a country rock flavor, but it’s definitely a punk rock descendant. “Footage” is even more strongly alt-country influenced, yet it also reminds me of some mid-period Hüsker Dü songs, and Snodgrass’ raspy vocals sometimes sound kind of like Bob Mould’s. Even more overtly countrified is “Don’t Break Her Heart,” from the twangy sound to the subject matter. This one I can clearly hear as a solo acoustic song, as well.

The album is loaded with contrasts, showing off Snodgrass’ wonderful range, both in writing and performing. For example, “BoyzIIMen” is a lovely delicate track, with acoustic guitar, piano, and vocals, but right after it is “1-2-3-4,” a huge bluesy song with noisy buzzy guitars. “The Sequal” is another raucous track that has that slight Americana sound, but plenty of punk power. And while I’m normally not one for guitar solos, this song has one that’s simple and strong, and the way it soars is beautiful.

The most heartwarming part of the record, though, has to be the pair of tracks, “Indoor-Outdoor Type” and “Go Baseball…,” the former being a field recording of Snodgrass at a baseball game with one of his kids, and the latter being Snodgrass talking to his kid about a song the kid wrote, then he plays it. His kid even interrupts and corrects him on the lyrics! This is sure to bring a smile to your face and cause a bit of a chuckle to scape your lips. And the whole record will be something you’re sure to enjoy.

THE URETHRAS – Patronized (Pirates Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)

The Urethras are a band of teenagers who were voted “most likely to start a circle pit at a Bay Area punk rock show,” according to their press bio. This is the debut single for the California kids, and though the recording quality could use some work, this is the pissed off hardcore I remember from the early 80s. The music is super simple, fast and loud, with angry lyrics shouted with lots of piss and vinegar. The instrumentals sound like were recorded inside a glass jar or something, but it can’t dilute the ire. That it’s teenagers making this retro punk music is pretty unreal. This is sure to get you moshing in da pit!

ZERO ZEROES (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)

My first impression when I first started listening to this was that I liked the dark menacing punk sound. “Mouth Full of Snakes” is a punch-in-the-gut track with garage undertones and a bleak sense of gloom looming. As I listened further, though, I felt like I was listening to the same song on repeat. Taken individually, each song is solid, vigorous, muscular sounding punk with a sense of despair. When taken as an album, there’s too little variation from track to track. I kind of do have a favorite track, though, and it’s “Face Up to the Mist.” Though the band is from Germany and writing their music in 2020, this song reminds me of 1980s Naked Raygun a bit in some ways, and it adds in some surf guitar sounds. These touches make it stand out from the rest of the album – which is great dark punk, but the sort of songs that will be enjoyed when they pop up in shuffle mode, rather than listened to straight through.


ATTIC SALT – Get Wise (Jump Start Records, www.jumpstartrecords.com)

Coming out of America’s heartland, Springfield, Illinois, Attic Salt are back with their sophomore LP. The record contains ten songs of great, melodic poppy music, right on the edge between pop punk and indie pop. In comparison to 2017’s self-titled debut, the sound here is somewhat cleaner and more mature, but no less exciting. Guitarists Alyssa Currie and Andy Harmon are still there, taking turns on lead vocals, providing a welcome variety in sound texture. The melodies are bouncy, the guitar sound jangly and big, creating a wall of sound that surrounds you and hugs you. Favorite song is “Mud,” which opens with acoustic guitar and Currie singing depressing lyrics about being in a rut. “We still hang out at the same bars / Still talking about weather / Driving in all our shit cars / Pray for something better / Sometimes you call it a night / So I close out and head home / Sometimes we wake up together / It makes us feel more alone.” I mean, how depressing is that? After the initial verses, the full band comes in, Currie’s vocals still sounding glum amidst the brightness of the instrumentals. It’s one of the things pop punk does best: putting a happy face on the shittiest of life experiences, and this song is a prime example of how it’s done. I also really like the opener, the incongruously titled, “Last Song.” Currie’s vocals really shine here, and the tough guitars manage to sound sweet and sparkly. And “Fool 4 U” has a nice grunge feel mixed in with this song about longing for a connection with someone else. The guitars play a simple repeating line consisting of just a couple of chords, deep and loud, while Currie sings about being alone and wanting to take a chance on love, even knowing it might end up leaving her heartbroken. Great stuff.

CHRISTIAN SINGLES – Maybe Another Time (Mt. St. Mtn., wwwmtstmtn.com)

Rob I. Miller, the Oakland-based musician who is known for Mall Walk and Blues Lawyer, is releasing his debut solo LP under the Christian Singles moniker. The songs were written in the early days of the pandemic stay-at-home orders, but the songs are not a reflection of that, or even of the mass protests for racial justice and police reform that has held the nation in its grips since the late spring. It was the return of his father’s cancer that caused Miller to take stock, dredging up unresolved issues and bringing a sense of urgency to try to bring about a resolution, or at least articulate them. The nine songs that resulted speak about the difficult questions we all face when it comes to family and forgiveness. The music makes generous use of acoustic guitar and electronics, and many of the songs are attractively moody. Some get noisy or dissonant. These sorts of songs are my favorites on this record. Such is the case with the opening track, “Bury.” Starting out quietly with just acoustic guitar and vocals, drums, reverb, and glimmering electronics are added. As the song continues to build we get a wall of noise from the synths, distortion overloading, even as the glimmery mood of the electronics and the smooth vocals continue underneath. The lyrics are a direct reference to questions of familial relationships and buried feelings. It’s an extremely effective way to open the LP. “My memory of you is in the junk drawer of my mind,” begins the next track, “Junk Drawer.” “’Cause all that stuff that we went through is the stuff I don’t want to find.” It’s a reference to how we all try to bury bad feelings, things we don’t care to revisit. As another song about difficulties of relating to one’s family members, “Junk Drawer” has a cool, laid back feel, with reverb on the drums, acoustic and electric guitar and keyboards, with the synths interjecting some interesting bleeps. It’s pretty and sad sounding at the same time, like being depressed while sitting on the beach of a tropical island. I like the lope of “Keep Your Head Down,” and its lonely hollow sound. Toward the end of the track after the lyrics are done, we hear an answering machine message, presumably from Miller’s father, apologizing multiple times for missing an earlier call, and perhaps for other things, asking to get together. “A Dream Ends Without Starting” has a deep gospel folk sound focused on acoustic guitar, and a Bob Dylan twang in the vocals. It has a great driving feel, like a train song, moving ever forward with huge momentum. “Nothing is new, I know I shouldn’t worry / But when you leave it’s always in a hurry,” sings Miller, possibly referencing the difficulty of making a connection with his father. And I really like the penultimate song, “By Design.” It starts out quietly, with keyboards and vocals, but there are unsettled electronics making noise in the background, sounding like thousands of frogs at night, growing more insistent as the song progresses. But it’s when we get to the middle that things explode and get really good. The drums and keyboards get loud, overloaded and distorted, with the vocals and acoustic guitar underneath. There’s a sense of chaos, but with an order at the center of it, just as even within the chaos of broken trust in a family, there are still those bonds that hold us together lurking underneath. The closer is “Back The Way I Came,” and it’s got some unsettled twang to it, a country folk tune that’s gotten turned around. The odd effects are pretty cool. It took me a few listens for this record to sink in, and I’m really glad I stuck with it, because it’s worth it.

DEATH VALLEY GIRLS – Under the Spell of Joy (Suicide Squeeze Records, www.suicidesqueeze.net)

They aren’t from Death Valley (they’re from LA) and they’re not all girls (there’s one man in this band of mostly women). Nonetheless, Death Valley Girls provide something unique. Imagine mixing dark goth, dream pop, light power pop, and garage rock and roll. The opening track, “Hypnagogia,” is a great example of the darker side of Death Valley Girls. Everything about it says, “mysterious,” from the reverb to the swirling atmospheric keyboards, the wailing saxophone pulled to the background, and the arcane unison vocals slowly rising in volume and anger. Hypnagogia is that space between sleep and wakefulness, and is an apt name for the feelings evoked by this track. Most of the other tracks are quite different from that opener, featuring a cross between pop and garage. Like “Hold My Hand,” a song that bounces and has pop hooks like a good power pop song, but it also has the feel of a classic garage rock song, courtesy of the keyboards. When we get to the close of the song, things get big and dreamy, too. The title track blends garage rock with some of that dark mysteriousness, the keyboards, reverb, and sax vying for dominance. “Bliss Out” is a favorite, with sweet pop melding with edgy garage, making it a favorite. As the track comes to a close it slows, and sounds almost like an Angelo Badalamente song from Twin Peaks, getting retro and dreamy. The aptly named “Universe” has a huge, expansive sound, full of dreamy wonderment. Occasionally the songs turn into a bit of a jam, like on “10 Day Miracle Challenge,” which is also the hardest garage rock song of the LP. And “I’d Rather Be Dreaming” has a retro feel, a pleading quality like some of the 1950s early rock and roll songs. There’s enough variety in these songs, yet enough cohesiveness, to make this a pretty good listen.

JOE GIDDINGS – Better From Here (Kool Kat Records, www.koolkatmusik.com)

Kool Kat’s giving a physical release to this 2016 digital only release, and the first since Giddings’ 2014 collection of covers. The dozen songs here mix power pop, a show tune sensibility, hints of mid period Beatles-esque aesthetic, some good ol’ rock and roll, and a heavy dose to 1970s AM radio. There are harmonized vocals aplenty, reminding me heavily of the bygone era of bubblegum pop. The title track is one that brings show tunes to mind, as it’s got a very theatrical sort of sound. It’s a classic introductory kind of track, and it even references The Beatles in its lyrics. “Amity Horror” has plenty of bounce, and the synth gives it a sparkly sound. The deeply multi-tracked harmonized vocals give it that bubblegum pop sound, but it’s got a glam-power-pop edge to it, too. Favorite songs include “Tin Foil Crush,” a rockin’ tune with crunchy guitars and some nice pop hooks. The harmonized vocals, too, give it that retro AM radio sound. “Rock and Roll” is even harder-edged in places, but still definitely pop. I like the odd key signatures the guitars go through, trying to make the song sound tougher, even as the melody and vocals are lighter and poppier. It’s an interesting contrast. And the contrast between the smooth vocals and jangly chorus with the edgy guitars in the verses is nice. I’m not quite as thrilled with “Always Raining Somewhere,” which has a country flair to it, with slide guitar and organ. It’s one kind of rock and roll I could never get into. And “Brand New Day” has a down-home beat against jangly 60s pop guitars that’s a little jarring. Overall, the songs here aren’t going to set the world on fire, but they are solid pop rock.

LOST IN SOCIETY – Love and War (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)

Asbury Park, NJ punk stalwarts Lost In Society aren’t letting a little thing like a pandemic slow them down. After releasing a Clash tribute EP earlier this summer, they’re back with a five-song EP. These songs are raucous, great stuff, really strong edgy pop punk. I absolutely love the opening track. “All Is Fair,” which has big, bright, striding guitars, and gives the EP it’s name. “All is fair in love and war / So I don’t wanna be so fair no more,” sings Zach Moyle, with a pleading, gravelly voice. Politics and current events play a part in the lead single, “We Want Change.” “We Want Change basically encapsulates our current frustration and outrage at what is going on in our country right now,” says Moyle. “We’re seeing a system that supports violence against marginalized groups and doesn’t hold their peers accountable for their actions.” And the powerfully dark punk song opens with the question to police, “How does it feel, living with impunity? / So quick to shoot, never time to take the blame?” The song points the damning finger at cops for their ties to white supremacist organizations, and the huge gang vocals throughout the song demand “We want change! We want change! We want fucking change!” The instrumentals are fairly simple, but provide a strong base (and the bass is strong here, too) for the important lyrics. I like the way “Prescribed Paranoia” blends punk and grunge, sort of in the way The Dirty Nil does, but in a way that sounds more raw. Likewise, the slower closing track, “Stubborn,” is a slower, grungier one that rocks, and I could easily hear this as a Dirty Nil tune. I had not heard this band before, even though they’ve been around since 2004. But I definitely will be watching for them now, because this is a great record.

WORKING MEN’S CLUB (Heavenly Recordings, www.heavenlyrecordings.com)

Announced on the eve of the pandemic lockdown and originally due to come out last June, Working Men’s Club’s self-titled debut LP is finally seeing release, some four months after its originally intended date. And it’s obvious upon listening to these ten songs that the Yorkshire teenagers that make up the band have old souls, because the music contained herein is a throwback to 1980s new-wave dance pop and post punk. The mechanical sounds of drum beats and electronic keyboards echo the industrial beat of the factories and steel mills that employed so many in the north of England and are largely shut now. Vocals are mostly spoken in a deadpan, as much of the bands of the genre did it, with only occasional singing. Guitars punctuate the synthesizers with a funky sound to help you get down. I’m reminded of early post-punk bands, like The Pop Group or Dalek I Love You, that experimented with mixing dance beats, synths, and a punk aesthetic. “A.A.A.A.” has a huge synth sound, with deep rumbling bass, buzzy melodic line, and a strong mechanized backbeat. Vocals also sound synthetic, distorted and robotic. It’s like taking that early post punk and mashing it up with more modern industrial dance music, giving it a heavier darker feel. “John Cooper Clarke” is an homage to the English performance poet of the punk era, and features some great funky guitars reminding me of the sound of Tackhead, the industrial hip-hop group featuring Keith LeBlanc, Doug Wimbish, Skip McDonald, and producer Adrian Sherwood. “White Rooms and People,” with its disco beat and guitars, with spacey synths and spoken vocals hammers home the post punk sound. I really like the uncompromising “Be My Guest; its pounding rhythms and raging guitar are relentless, and the synths provide the sound of a thousand lost souls. “Cook A Coffee” is different from a lot of the tracks because it makes more sparing use of synths and more use of angry angular guitars. I do like this blast from the past of an LP, but I could have done without the twelve and a half minute jam at the end of the album. The idea started out well enough, but it just extended needlessly. But if you like early 80s post punk mashed up with hip-hop and industrial, give this a spin.


BOB MOULD – Blue Hearts (Merge Records, www.mergerecords.com)

I’m going to start this with full disclosure. Hüsker Dü is one of my all-time favorite bands. Some of their songs are among my all-time favorite songs. The way they bridged hardcore punk and melodic indie rock was groundbreaking. I even bought and enjoyed Mould’s early solo stuff. But most of his later output didn’t really do that much for me. I know, heresy, but it just lacked the aggressiveness I needed from Mould’s music. I drifted away. Until 2020, with the current multiple crises facing our country, it seems Mould has found his anger again, and when he released the single “American Crisis” and announced this LP, I got excited to hear his music for the first time in a couple of decades. And here we are now, and “Blue Hearts” is Mould’s best work since the late 1980s.

The opening acoustic track, “Heart on My Sleeve,” is a perfect way to open this LP, with an emotional plea, listing off the ills that are doing nothing but growing more intense with time. The deep sadness and frustration come through in the vocals, as Mould’s voice cracks a couple of times. And then the album explodes with “Next Generation.” The song is exciting and powerful, Mould’s voice raging the way it used to, his guitar creating a wall of sound that impossibly jangles. The real rage gets turned on for the lead single, the aforementioned “American Crisis.” Mould literally screams as the song opens, and cries out, “I never thought I’d see this bullshit again / To come of age in the ‘80s was bad enough / We were marginalized and demonized / I watched a lot of my generation die.” Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and so we are here, but it’s even worse now, as we’ve become a nation of armchair activists. “We wake up every day to see a nation in flames / We click and we tweet / And we spread these tales of blame,” Mould says, with a damning tone. The fact that the generation that fought so hard for change 40 years ago has now been made complacent is an intolerable thought, but something that gets turned on us in the glaring light of truth. The strongest lines come at the close of the song: “Silence was death / Never forget / Silence was death / Silence.” It’s a call to action like no other.

“Fireball” comes next, and it’s one of my favorites of the LP. It’s another rager, cacophonous guitars pummeling us with noisy melody, Mould’s vocals spitting venom more effectively than ever. The backing vocals in the chorus glide smoothly in contrast to the leads, and as the track comes to a conclusion, and the bedlam of the instruments is rapidly faded out, save for a bit of guitar feedback, those backing vocals are cranked up to reveal the sound of a chorale in cathedral, with voices echoing off the walls. It sends chills up my spine. “Forecast of Rain” is a slower song, less noisy, musically, but just as damning, lyrically. It lays bare the hypocrisy of the “religious right,” asking a question of the Almighty: “This love thy neighbor thing, does it apply to all mankind? / Or only those who fit neatly inside your narrow lines?” Turning to those who call themselves the true believers, Mould exposes them for the charlatans they are: “My truth is different than your distortions and disguised interpretations twisting the words of ancient times.” These so-called Christians reinterpret passages from the Bible that they can twist to suit their political ends while ignoring other parts that do not meet their needs. The “forecast of rain” the title alludes to is the forty days of rain needed to cleanse the earth anew.

Other tracks I really like include “Siberian Butterfly,” “Racing to the End,” and “Little Pieces.” These are tracks that mix bouncy pop and hard-edged guitar noise, the combination that made the Hüskers such a great band. And that’s one of the things that make Blue Hearts such a great record, too. That, and the words, the explosive fury. These make this album one of the best and one of the most important of 2020.

LYDIA LOVELESS – Daughter (Honey, You're Gonna Be Late Records, lydialoveless.bandcamp.com)

Alt-country artist Lydia Loveless has ended her four-year hiatus with “Daughter,” her first studio LP since 2016’s “Real.” The album documents a period of intense change in Loveless’ life, including divorce and moving away from her lifelong home of Columbus, Ohio. The album title refers to a growing movement of feminism in the country that includes billboards along roadsides “imploring people not to hurt women because they were somebody’s daughter or sister or mother,” says Loveless. After her divorce she was living as an individual for the first time, having jumped from her teen years right to marriage. That, with her family turmoil and lack of maternal impulses, defining herself as a daughter or sister did not give her comfort.

“Alt-country” isn’t really an adequate genre description for the music Loveless makes; there’s definitely an indie pop element to it, as well. Think indie music with a twang. The songs are uniformly heartfelt and emotional. There’s nothing light and bouncy; it’s all pretty deep introspective stuff. Take “Love Is Not Enough,” one of the lead singles. I think it may be my favorite of the album; with its jangly guitars it has a retro power pop feel blended with the country twang of Loveless’ vocals. The lyrics are pretty devastating, about being in significantly different places in a relationship. “Tell me how it feels to always see everything in a major key,” the song asks, “When I’m drowning in ennui.” “Love is not enough / I wonder if it ever was / I shouldn’t have to break you down to build me up” is the refrain. It’s a recognition that relationships have to be on equal footing to be successful, that just being in love isn’t enough. The other lead single, “Wringer,” seems to be an acceptance by Loveless of her role in her breakup. “How did it come to this / Dividing of possessions? / Only reason it got this far is your / Childish obsession / With everything you thought I’d be / But could not deliver / All that loving me ever did was run you through the wringer.” But when that last line comes around again, it’s turned around, to signify that a relationship is two people, and its success or failure relies on both: “You give the sweetest kisses dear / But you leave the stinger / All that loving you ever did was run me through the wringer.” The music on this one has an almost disco dance beat to it, smoothly strummed guitars with a hint of funkiness. “Never” is another track with a dance beat to it after its otherworldly intro with piano and synth. It’s a song of apology and acceptance. “And I know that I’m not ever gonna get you back / Let me tell you that I’m sorry ‘cause I owe you that,” explains the chorus. Piano sadly plinks out some chords, as the guitars jangle, the drums keeping a steady dance beat, and through it all, Loveless gives her emotional confession. “When You’re Gone” is another of the jangly guitar tracks, and combing that with the deep bass notes give the song an epic pop feel. In this case, being gone refers to death, something that comes for all of us eventually. “When you’re gone there will be no healing, no moment of clarity / You will be dead, there will be no reeling out into the street / ‘Cause there was never anything I could do,” sings Loveless, declaring the finality of death. And I adore the penultimate track “September,” a quiet ballad with piano and strings. The backing vocals on the chorus will send chills down your spine.

No, alt-country doesn’t do Loveless justice. Her music is richer and more complex than that simple moniker would imply.

FULLER – Crush Me (www.listentofuller.com)

It’s alt pop. No, it’s dance pop. As the little girl says in the TV commercial and now famous meme, “Why not both?” On his debut EP, J.P. Welsh is the man behind Fuller. Relocated from Austin, Texas to Los Angeles at the start of 2019, Welsh set to work with producer Eric Palmquist to lay down the tracks that form this record. The tracks blend a strong dance club beat with indie rock instrumentation and indie pop hooks to create a fun sounding upbeat record. The lyrics are not so bubbly, though, with themes of bad romance, and anxiety. My favorite track is the opener, “Favorite Poison.” It’s so sparkly and fizzy and fun, and the lyrics liken one’s romantic partner to the titular substance. “I stay out too late with you / Get too drunk in front of you / I can’t tell my friend the truth / You’re a bad habit and I’m a bad boyfriend” says one verse. The title track has the strongest dance beat, with a hard pounding bass, but the melody is smooth and poppy. The lyrics are full of anxiety about lack of self-worth. “Take a shot at my soul, take a shot at my soul / it’s not worth much anymore / and I’m not one to deny it, so / If you steal my heart, if you steal my heart / You should tear it apart / But let me down easy.” And “Sink or Swim” continues the blend of dance and pop, this time adding an element of dreaminess in the production. “Yr So Retro” tries to add a harder rock and roll edge to the mix, and I don’t think this recipe works quite as well; the dark rock, dance beats, and dream pop guitar seem to clash too much. “Change My Mind” feels pop radio ready, and normally that would be as turn-off for me. But there’s just something about Fuller that I really like. The production might be slick and big-time ready, but the melodies and hooks are solidly indie, and Fuller has hooked me.

MUCK AND THE MIRES – Take Me Back to Planet Earth (Rum Bar Records, www.rumbarrecords.com)

Just before the pandemic stay at home orders were issued, Boston garage rockers Muck and the Mires released a single from what was to be a forthcoming LP, due out this summer. Perhaps COVID-19 had other ideas. But instead, in this autumnal age, we get six new songs in one EP, all recoded during the lockdown. The title track is pure retro early 60s fun, with lyrics seemingly inspired by grade B sci-fi flicks of the era. I love the jangle of “6 O’clock,” a song with more pop than garage, but still 60s retro style. It’s a self-assured song about not needing to make plans on a Friday night, because he’s already got his “6 o’clock baby” to stay in with. As we get to “Hey Sunshine,” the music continues to get poppier and lighter, yet still with that solid 60s sound in the vein of the Beatles, but somewhat rougher and gruffer. “She Blocked My Number” blends garage and pop for a fun one, and the lyrics speak to modern problems of telecommunications features introduced much more recently than what the music style would imply. The most timely is the closer, “Zoom Breakup,” a bouncy garage pop tune about how much better it is to break up over a zoom meeting than by writing a letter. I wonder how many Zoom breakups there have been since the lockdown started. We may not have gotten the LP (yet) but this EP is great fun.

RYAN AND PONY – Moshi Moshi (Pravda Records, www.pravdamusic.com)

Here comes the debut LP from Ryan and Pony, a new project featuring Ryan Smith and Pony Hixon-Smith, both of The Melismatics (Ryan is also a member of another well-known Minneapolis band, Soul Asylum), and Peter Anderson (Run Westy Run, The Ocean Blue) on drums. On this debut LP, the trio mix dream-pop, indie, EDM and post-punk, in different ratios on each song, to create a unique sound that varies considerably from track to track. After the dancey dreamy bubblegum opener, “Starry Eyes,” “Start Making Sense” has a hard-edged guitar sound, giving this track a grittier rock and roll feel, though the contrasting vocals are smooth. “Fast As I Can” is, for the most part, a relaxed easy pop track that’s somewhat forgettable, except that just past the halfway mark there’s an awesome bridge with some great jazzy improvisation on different types of horns, and I wish there was more of that. I do like the retro pop of “Be Still My Baby,” the closely harmonized vocals reminiscent of 60s pop, and “Cinematic” is aptly titled. It’s got a big sound like something from a movie soundtrack, crossed with Human League (who remembers 80s synth pop?). First Night can’t decide if it wants to be dream pop or indie rock, and I love that about it. It’s got a driving beat and raucous guitars, but it also has plenty of reverb, cool synths, and that wall of sound. Like some of the other songs, this one has a bridge past the halfway mark that’s completely different from the rest of the track, in this case it’s almost metallic guitars and a head banging beat. “Take It Or Leave It” sounds like it’s from a totally different band, being a real rocker without any dream, pop, or EDN pretense. It’s indie rock mixed with power pop and glam, and it’s definitely a favorite. And the intro to “Come Find Me” is gorgeous classical music played on rock and roll instruments, leading into an incongruously energetic pop ballad. The variety is breathtaking, but you can (for the most part) still tell this is all from the same band. This makes for a good listen.

SHY BOYS – Talk Loud (Polyvinyl Records, www.polyvinylrecords.com)

Shy Boys play smooth, sweet, bubblegum pop, influenced by pop music of the 80s, but making use of synthesizers rather than traditional guitar and bass. The harmonized vocals are silken and the music is airy and light. The synths play repetitive melodic lines in a mechanical manner, as the fragile sounding vocals glide along. After a number of songs all in the moderate tempo category with the same feel, we get “The Pool,” which starts out with a gorgeous lounge piano until the synths and drums come in, and I’m disappointed and long for that piano, as the track becomes more of the same, albeit with softer and less robotic keyboard sounds. “Trash,” one of the lead singles, begins with a different sound, with deep dark bass synth and unison vocals that sound menacing – until it turns into synth-pop again. I like synths, and I like bubblegum pop sometimes. But I just can’t get into the overly insubstantial songs on this LP.

SURFER BLOOD – Carefree Theater (Kanine Records, www.kaninerecords.com)

A band plagued with tragedy and controversy, Surfer Blood are back with their first LP of new original material since 2017’s “Snowdonia.” After front man John Paul Pitts’ arrested for domestic assault, their brief career on major label Warner Brothers’ Sire Records imprint was over. But the band continued on indie label Joyful Noise. Pitts initially pled not guilty, then did a “plea and pass” deal in which he attended a program designed to prevent a recurrence, and after completion the following spring, charges were dropped. Pitts has maintained his innocence throughout, and has not apologized for his actions. Today, that would be the end of a band, but a mere seven years ago it was business as usual for a band. Later, tragedy struck again with the death of original guitarist Thomas Fakete’s death from a rare form of cancer. This occurred shortly before the release of “Snowdonia.” Now, more than three years later, the band has returned to Kanine Records, the band that released their first records more than a decade ago. And it’s… OK. It’s smooth, even-keeled alternative rock. Oh, sure, some of the songs are better than average. I do like the dark wave “Karen,” with its dance beat and 80s Manchester sound, dominated by the prominent bass. “Unconditional” has a retro post-punk pop sound, kind of reminding me of The Smiths, and the organ warms things up nicely. And the gently plucked acoustic guitar in the closing track, “Rose Bowl,” is lovely, especially at the very end of the track. But other than these moments, the songs are fine, but just too relaxed and don’t grab my attention. There’s just out of the ordinary. Just smooth, steady, uneventful songs.


NICK FRATER – Fast and Loose (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)

Growing up in the 1970s, I was exposed to a ton of top 40 AM radio, the music of Burt Bacharach, and all the bubblegum music you can imagine. If Nick Frater was writing and recording these songs 50 years ago, he’d be ruling the airwaves along side Mr. B, whose easy pop rock hits “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” “Say a Little Prayer,” “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” and more defined a decade. Frater’s music is a little edgier than Bacharach’s hits, but not too much. “Let’s Hear It For Love” is the first real “song,” after the short instrumental intro title track. No, it’s not a cover of the Smoking Popes’ great pop punk crooner, though it does seem to use the idea behind that song’s lyrics and even a little bit of the melody in the chorus. Songs like “Luna,” with its organ and lightly driving rhythm, have subtle hints of garage rock influence, but the smoothness of the harmonized vocals are pure light pop. “Cocaine Gurls” is a song about trying to give up all the “bad things” that come from the fast and loose rock and roll world, but getting pulled back in by the titular characters. It’s a typically bouncy pop with a little bit of power, but not quite enough to push it over the top. “California Waits” is the epitome of the 70s sugary pop sound, even including some glockenspiel, and the guitar tone is spot on for the style. “Would You Like To Go” sounds like it could have come from the Sesame Street kids’ TV show, with a simple melody and its sweet message of friendship. I do like “Buy You Time,” which has a bit of retro doo-wop sound to it, and features piano, synths, jangly guitar, bass and drums in the mix. It’s got a strong back beat and an epic quality to it. But most of this LP just doesn’t have enough oomph. I was never a fan of 70s bubblegum pop.

MERCY MUSIC – Nothing In The Dark (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)

This is a simple review to write. This record is, in a word, outstanding! The music is melodic, poppy, and edgy, all rolled up into one. The hooks are prodigious, and the sound is bigger than the three-piece they are. This band deserves to be much bigger than they are right now. “Tuesday” is one helluva song. The hooks are awesome, the melody pretty, the playing and singing powerful – all the best put together into one song. It’s pop punk, it’s power pop, and it’s got some nice grunge touches, too. It’s one of the best songs of the year so far, to my ears. And the title track is another favorite. It’s just guitarist-vocalist Brendan Scholz playing acoustic guitar and singing, but the song is just so nice. Scholz can really write some great melodies. And those lyrics are so…sad, a song about aloneness. “When I go out I’ll be sure that I go out alone / We can be two lonely people the way it was before.” Make me cry, Brendan. “Tell Me I’m Wrong” blends the angst of emo, the melodic sensibilities of pop, and the heaviness of grunge. The result is a strong rock and roll song that you can’t decide if you want to dance to it, cry to it, or head-bang to it. The closing track, “Even If I’ve Lost,” is a real banger, too. You’re going to want to get up and jump around when this one comes on. It’s fast and bouncy and a ton of fun. This is a strong contender for the 2020 Best of list.

PURPLE WITCH OF CULVER – Trig (Loantaka Records, www.loantaka-records.com)

This is a new single from a new group, featuring saxophonist Sarah Safaie and producer/ multi-instrumentalist Evan Taylor. The track blends jazz, funk, hip-hop, chill-out EDM, and spoken word beat poetry. A continuous pounding drumbeat interlocks with the funky bass, and tenor sax interjects with some smooth lines. Safaie’s deadpan vocals give us the words, and a chill keyboard throws out some descending chords from time to time. This isn’t typical Jersey Beat indie music, but it’s certainly worthy of your attention.

TEENAGE HALLOWEEN (Don Giovanni Records, www.dongiovannirecords.com)

Fall is upon us, and it’s pumpkin spice season again. Thankfully, Teenage Halloween, though named for the season’s favorite holiday, doesn’t have any of the blandness of the ubiquitous flavoring. They call themselves a power pop band, but they aren’t. As much as I love good power pop, Teenage Halloween sell themselves short with that description, because the band’s sound is richer, more complex, and more varied than would be implied by that simple genre label. That makes their debut LP a winner. And yes, it’s their debut. Even though the band has been kicking around since 2014, this is their first LP. But it was worth the wait. Vocalist Luke Hendericks belts out the words with a folk punk power and angst – but there’s no folk punk on the record! It’s got that gravelly but higher pitched quality I most associate with folk punk. Some of the songs have a great epic quality, such as the opener, “Stationary.” The song is expansive, yet raucous. It’s a great introduction to the band and leaves me wanting to listen to more. I really love the fast and loud “Holes,” which has punk undertones, but has more of the sound of an indie pop song, with great melodic hooks. And “SMH City, too, has great power and great melody. Hendericks’ vocals really set the tone for this song, giving it a scratchy edge and an urgency. But that also comes from the pounding drums, thrumming bass, and the screaming keyboards. “Summer Money” has bright sound from Brandon Hakim’s saxophone that gives the song a nice jangle, even as it has a retro rock and roll beat. And I like the jazzy sound with bass, drums, and piano in the closing track, “Turn Right, Goes Straight,” as well as the clanging guitars,

The label’s write-up about the band on their website says that Teenage Halloween’s sound is “rooted in abundance,” and that’s an apt description. The band has a big sound, and, as their bio states, “”lyrics that grapple with vulnerability, community, extreme existentialism, mental illness, and gender euphoria.” I especially love that last term, as it juxtaposes with the condition of “gender dysphoria.” Dysphoria is a defined as a state of unease or dissatisfaction with life, while euphoria is joy and celebration. This record was originally slated to come out during the summer, and Teenage Halloween were scheduled to play The Fest 19 in October. 2020 hasn’t been kind to any bands. Hopefully 2021 will bring an end to the pandemic, a return of live music, and a reinvigorated Teenage Halloween, ready to tour, will be coming to a club near you.

TOBIN SPROUT – Empty Horses (Fire Records, www.firerecords.com)

Tobin Sprout should be well known to most Jersey Beat readers. He was a longtime member of Guided By Voices, penning some of that band’s songs. With GBV’s Robert Pollard he founded Airport 5, releasing a couple of LPs and numerous singles. And “Empty Horses” is his seventh solo LP. The ten songs here, for the most part, feel dusty and lonesome, yielding the feeling of Sprout as troubadour, wandering from place to place, singing his songs and telling his tales. Part of this comes from his mastery of lo-fi recording. It’s not so lo-fi as to be distracting, and not so slick as to feel overproduced. It ends up with a nice DIY feel, as someone doing the best he can with the tools he has. I particularly love the piano sound he gets; it sounds like a home recording, slightly distant, sad and lonesome. Part of it, too, comes from Sprout’s vocal style; it has the weary and worn sound of someone who’s seen and done way too much, and needs to talk about it. There’s a decent variety in the songs, though they’re all distinctly singer-songwriter fare. There are some simple acoustic guitar and vocal songs, the best of which is the simple “Every Sweet Soul.” It’s a pure, gorgeous song, just acoustic guitar and some overdubbed vocals and a pretty melody. Another great one is “Antietam,” with acoustic guitar and wood block percussion. It’s a song living a simple life growing up amidst a sea of troubles, then joining the fight for freedom and making the ultimate sacrifice. There are songs with electric guitar, and some with slide guitar too, giving an Americana alt-country feel. “Breaking Down” is a pretty ballad in this category about the call of the road, the need to go places, both literally and metaphorically. I really like “The Man I Used to Know,” one of the two “rock” songs of the LP. The heavy reverb and guitar tone give it that lonely dusty sound. The other is “All In My Sleep,” which has more of an indie rock sound than the others, with buzzy guitar effects. As the song evolves it adds piano and slide guitar, becoming a bit of an instrumental jam. That piano features prominently in songs such as “On Golden Rivers,” which also includes acoustic guitar and strings (or string synth). The overdubbed backing vocals are slightly out of sync with each other, giving it a “realistic” sound of a group of singers gathered together, singing for themselves. And the beautiful closing track is just piano and vocals, “No Shame.” It’s a short one, with a song that warns, “crawl away, you’re in danger boy,” and then declares, “there’s no shame on you, no shame.” There is no shame in self-preservation. Though all the songs could qualify as ballads, and some of the songs veer uncomfortably close to spiritual topics, there’s still an honesty in these songs that make them appealing.


BRIAN CULLMAN – Winter Clothes (Sunnyside Records, www.sunnysiderecords.com)

Brian Cullman, formerly of OK Savant, is releasing a solo LP, but it’s one that includes collaboration with a number of other musicians, including Jimi Zhivago, who passed away in late 2018 during work on this project. It took Cullman a year to come back to these songs and complete the album. The result is definitely singer-songwriter fare, but there’s a lot of diversity from song to song, with some having a Bob Dylan sort of vibe, others being more power pop, some adult contemporary, and others country-folk. The variety is something I personally praise every time I encounter it, and it keeps the listener engaged. Favorites include “Down Down Down,” a bluesy folk-rock jam that reminds me of Little Feat. “Wrong Birthday” is the one that brings Dylan to mind pretty quickly, or maybe a tamed Mick Jagger, with a song about being at the wrong place in life for things to work out the way you want. Speaking of the wrong place in life, “As A Man Gets Older” is a sad, lovely folk tune about how our lives change as we age. Delicately plucked acoustic guitars provide the primary instruments, along with electric bass, and the subtle backing vocals and organ are gorgeous. The previously released “New Year’s Eve” is here, also with a strong Dylan influence, about looking for love at the holidays. But my favorite track of the LP has to be “Wrong Girl.” Despite opening with mandolin, this is an unabashed power pop track, something that could have come from the pen of Paul Collins (of The Nerves and The Beat). If you take out the organ, mandolin, and slide guitar, this would be at home in any rock and roll club in the country. This is coming out at just the right time, because this is going to be a great listen on those cold rainy fall days.

IN PARALLEL – Fashioner (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)

This is a very different record than anything Wiretap has put out to date. This isn’t punk; it’s not pop punk. It’s big expansive music, synth heavy, dripping with dreaminess. It’s bass heavy, and has a strong beat, so in that sense it reminds me, in some superficial ways, of early New Order, but like a less emphatic, more ethereal version. There’s definitely an ‘80s vibe in the melodies and synths, but the arrangements are more modern. “Six Over Eight” has moments that are swirly, though most of it features deep growling bass and darkness, but with a gauzy silkiness floating above it. The title track, which bears the subtitle, “No Exit,” has a distinct dance beat to it, bringing up memories of those 80s bands even more strongly, but tempered with a modern rock sensibility. “Deep Dark” is an interesting one in that it blends the synth-dream-pop style with a 2000s melodic emo style. The music and vocals are big and the production feels slick. Maybe a bit too slick. “Leave it With The Ghost” has a very deliberate beat, but it’s not really a dancey song. It starts out on the quiet side and builds, the grumbling bass and drums working in unison to create an air of tension, while the heavily reverbed guitar and vocals try to give a sense of ease. ”Threat of Heaven” closes things out, starting as a quiet dreamy anthem. Halfway through, it explodes into cacophony, with the bass and drums still holding the center, keeping things aligned amidst what is otherwise a soundtrack to chaos. Noise and buzzing come from the synths and the guitars, the level rising, the feedback growing. These last two tracks are my favorite of the EP, probably because they have the richest texture of the quintet of songs. Overall, Fashioner is not the sort of record I would seek out, but it has its moments.

BLAKE JONES – The Homebound Tapes (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)

Music has gotten quieter and more intimate during the pandemic shutdown, as people turn to home recording without full band arrangements. And that’s the case with the aptly titled “The Homebound Tapes,” from Big Stir Records’ founding father, Blake Jones. The half dozen tracks here are quite varied, even as they’re mostly acoustically based, as are most new home recorded releases. The opening song, “The Last Song of Summer,” comes at a perfect time, as we reach September and Labor Day weekend. It’s delicate acoustic guitar, bass, and Jones’ vocals singing a Neil Young-like song celebrating the ending of summer and farewells in general. “Do the Lockdown Bossa Nova” is an awesome track that features guitar, various percussion instruments, and a theremin playing the Latin inspired melody. It’s quirky and eerie; you can imagine ghostly apparitions dancing to the Brazilian beat. “Three Jerks in a Jeep” is my favorite of the record. It’s an understated garage rock and roll song that rocks out quietly, while providing a biting satirical commentary on conservative complaints about this summer’s protests. I like the folksy waltz, “Homebound,” performed on acoustic guitar and mandolin. It’s a ballad about pulling up roots and moving during the global pandemic lockdown, and it’s a pretty song, but sad, as it speaks of leaving everything you’ve known for years and driving along empty roads and shuttered restaurants. It’s also apparently the true story of Big Stir’s Rex Broome’s parents, who did just that at the outset of the stay at home orders. The bookend of “The Last Song of Summer” is called, well, “The First Song of Summer,” and it’s a lighthearted song that feels like it could come from a stage show, all happy and a bit silly. “Make Peace” ends the EP, and it’s an anthem to the sentiment, as Blake pleads that we do just that. Electric guitar, piano, and drums give the song the feel of a quiet march. And marching for justice and peace has been a central part of 2020. Six songs, six sounds, six sentiments, all around current themes. What could be better?

NOi!SE – Welcome to Tacoma (Pirates Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)

Tacoma, Washington’s street punks dropped a surprise EP! Not only is it a surprise in that it was unannounced, it’s a surprise that this is an all acoustic record, sounding nothing like their usual raucous selves. There are four tracks here, acoustic versions of fan favorites. “Dull The Pain,” from “The Real Enemy” LP, instead of being the relentless pounding song it was on the album, it’s a pretty Latin-influenced number that I could see a punk mariachi band playing. The vocals come through like never before, too, and are deep and rich. “So I Drift Away,” which comes from the album “The Scars We Hide,” isn’t as drastic of a transformation, as it changes from a gritty street punk song into a gritty folk-punk song. And those sumptuous vocals just make this work so well. On the same LP, “Rank and File” is noisy and a bit chaotic, but here it’s luscious jangly dark folk punk. “Rising Tide” may be my favorite song of theirs, from the album of the same name. It’s a great punk anthem with challenging intervals for singing. Here it transforms to a fast paced crooner of a song, with wondrous Morrissey-like vocals (but without the controversy). And it’s still my favorite. Yes, this EP is a surprise in more than one way, and it’s a welcome surprise.

SILENT ERA – Rotate the Mirror (Nervous Intent Records, nervousintent.bigcartel.com)

From Oakland, CA, Silent Era plays melodic hardcore – but not the kind of modern melodic hardcore you’re thinking of, not the kind that borders on metal. This is the kind of post hardcore that was being made in the 80s, and that guitar tone! It’s a very 80s punk sound, reminding me a lot of Boston’s The Proletariat. It’s also got a dose of California surf punk guitar thrown in, too. The music is speedy, melodic, hard-edged, and even bouncy! Vocals are powerful and clear. Some of the tracks are more melodic, some are super fast and crunchy. I like both. “Say It Again” is incredibly intense, the proverbial fast and loud punk music, and it’s a standout. “Unserving Lie” is one of the poppiest songs you’ll hear all year, but it’s also one of the fastest and most cracking. It makes it one of my favorites of the LP. The same can be said about “The Hook.” The band is super tight and these tunes are really punchy. Strongly recommended!


SOULSIDE – This Ship (Dischord Records, www.dischord.com)

You have no idea how excited I was when Soulside announced this new record. I loved Soulside back in the day, and during their very short tenure they put out some excellent records that are still among my favorites. When they announced their reunion for a few special shows in conjunction with the release of the DC punk documentary, “Salad Days,” I actually bought a plane ticket to fly to DC to catch their two shows at The Black Cat. I thought that was that, but they continued to play, making their way across the USA where I caught them again at The Casbah in San Diego, and they toured Europe. It was while they were overseas that they found time to get into the studio and record their first new music since 1989, and the result is “This Ship,” a two-song 7” single whose download comes with a third bonus song. And, while you can still recognize these new songs as Soulside, they don’t sound identical to the songs they last released over thirty years ago. And that’s good, because bands should continue to evolve and grow. The songs are melodic and powerful, with post-hardcore touches. The title track makes great use of guitar feedback and noise, yielding an urgent feel, while the guitar, bass, and drums provide a retro surf garage pop feel mixed with, of course, a DC post-hardcore sound. Of course, the lyrics are a political and social commentary, in this case likening society to a ship that we all need to work together to right, lest it capsize. The B-side of the vinyl release, “Madeleine Said,” has a bit of a Jawbox/J Robbins feel to it, with jangly dissonance in the guitars, but a slower, more melodic, gliding vocal line above that. The bonus track is “Survival,” and the same jangly noisy guitars are there, but the song has a bit more of a pop melody. It seemed impossible at first, then just unlikely. But now, Soulside are back. I hope this is a harbinger of a new full length LP to come.

BEAUTIFUL DUDES – Nite Songs (Dowd Records, www.dowdrecords.com)

Following up from their 7” release earlier this year, Beautiful Dudes return with a six-song EP of dark, yet varied indie rock. The songs all have a melancholy running through them, yet each sounds distinctly different from the others. “Nothing But the Black” opens the EP with the most raucous of the tracks and a very 80s post punk feel. “Beverly Hills” is a little poppier with lovely guitar distortion, in the same way that The Jesus and Mary Chain used noise and pop melody. “Nite Nite” brings metal and grunge to the table, and “I Don’t Ever Want To Get Out Of Bed” is a morose ballad, the depression and gloom palpable. “The Champion” closes the EP with an epic cacophony. But my favorite is the penultimate track, “Today Is Just Today.” It has an 80s retro sound like the opener, but it’s quieter, poppier, and with a gritty blend of surf and western. The guitar sound reminds me a lot of the The Plugz’ “Reel 10,” the music from the climax of the film “Repo Man.” The EP is nicely cohesive while maintaining a good variety.

CHASER – Look Alive (www.chaserpunkrock.com)

Two new songs from SoCal skate punks Chaser. The songs are speedy and melodic, with plenty of harmonized whoa-oh vocals. The Orange County melodic punk sound is strong in this pair of songs. Of the two, I think the B-side, “Found Myself Again,” gets the edge. It’s bouncier and poppier, and I like the crunchiness of the bass and guitars. And best of all, 100% of the proceeds from the sale of this record will be donated to four worthy organizations, Equal Justice Initiative, Educational First Steps, Crisis Aid International, and Surfrider Foundation. You get good music and you get to help the cause.

COLD YEARS – Paradise (eOne Music, www.entertainmentone.com)

Paradise is the debut LP from Scottish band Cold Years. Hailing from Aberdeen, on Scotland’s east coast, the band joke’s that the album’s title is a sarcastic reference to their hometown, which is decidedly not a paradise. Musically, the band play big, melodic, emotion-filled music that lies somewhere between pop punk and alterative rock. It’s odd, because the slick production and alternative rock sort of stuff is a sound I don’t normally go for, but Cold Years have enough of an edge to their music, enough of an urgent sound, that I’m digging this record. Ross Gordon’s vocals are heartfelt, something you can hear clearly from the opening track of the LP, “31.” It starts with just acoustic guitar and vocals, and the vocals are raspy and pleading. Songs that stand out for me include those that have more of the pop punk edge to them. “Life With A View” is one such song, with great striding guitars and pleading vocals. “Breathe” has a post-hardcore feel mixed into the smoother pop punk and alternative rock sounds that gives this track a bit of an edge. “Burn The House Down” is one of the most intense tracks, too, and it’s my favorite of the bunch. It’s intense, but very melodic. One thing I notice about many of the tracks is that they start off with a harder, edgier sound, and as the song evolves the often smooth out, moving more toward the alternative pop punk sounds. I wish they would maintain that edgier sound throughout the songs. “Too Far Gone” is the opposite, though, starting more quietly and getting bigger, moving through a slick alternative rock phase and moving to a jumpy, boisterous, poppy section. And the closer, “Hunter,” is just beautiful, an acoustic song with guitar and Gordon’s earnest singing. Yeah, I kinda unexpectedly dig this record.

GODCASTER – Long Haired Locusts (Ramp Local, www.ramplocal.com)

Mix together 70s funk and pop and a large dose of experimentalism and you get Godcaster! “Rising from the underground river of primordial goo that runs between New York City and Philadelphia,” as the band say, this is the band’s debut LP.” And it’s explosive, right from the get-go. The opening track, humorously titled, “Even Your Blood Is Electric,” has the funky sounds of a 70’s TV cop show theme song. One thing this song has that’s a common thread throughout the album is the use of flute and keyboards playing melodic lines in unison. It gives these songs a bright tone, and emphasizes the 70s influence, whether the tracks are funky or poppy. I love not just these songs, but their titles, too. “Don’t Make Stevie Wonder,” “Christ in Capsule Form,” “All the Feral Girls in the Universe,” and “Rapturous Climax” are just a few examples. I really enjoy the way “Apparition of Mother Mary In My Neighborhood” oscillates between odd, off-kilter pop, funk, and chaotic avant-garde. “Sassy Stick Boy,” with its flute and what sounds like glockenspiel, opens with the sweet sound of a Sesame Street vignette. The bits of guitar wah-pedal in the background emphasize the 70s nature of the track, and even the pretty harmonized vocals have hints of a condescending tone that we get in kids’ music. Besides having a pun for a title, “Don’t Make Stevie Wonder” has some great funk and cacophonous experimentalism that’s a blast to listen to. “Christ In Capsule Form” is way too short, but it’s a glorious hymn, sung in choral form – or as close to that as you get from this collection of oddball musicians. “Escape From the Challenger Deep” is a gorgeous quiet ballad that also sounds like something that could have come from a twisted version of Sesame Street until the halfway mark when it undergoes a transformation into something out of a manic psychedelic science fiction soundtrack. “Sexy Heffer” is a fun one that starts off as a simple off-kilter funk track, but gets wilder and more chaotic as it goes. There’s one song that’s borderline punk, and that’s the manic “The Skull!!!” The music is as emphatic as those three exclamation marks imply, with a speedy tempo, edgy guitars, and urgent sounding synths. Man, this is crazy, refreshingly different stuff. Recommended.

NEW WAY VENDETTA – Cough Cool b/w 1984 (On The Floor) (www.facebook.com/newwayvendetta)

New Way Vendetta is a collective of pro-mask radicals with links to Christian Death, The Jackalopes, Electric Frankenstein, Cricketbows, Shadow Project, C.O.H., Kathedral, Rozz Williams, The Empire Hideous and more. On this debut release they offer up one cover and one original. The cover is, of course, that of the famous Misfits tune. New Way Vendetta slow the song a bit, add tons of atmospheric synths, making it sound more like something from a dystopian science fiction film. Some other interesting touches: the emphasis on the lyric “cover your face” and the introductory bit with a synthesized voice ordering people to wear a face covering and maintain social distancing. The original track on the “virtual B-side” focuses on dark synth driven pop and gang vocals. The lyrics provide a warning: “Big Brother is watching you / Keeping track of your every move.” It’s obvious these mysterious figures are having a laugh. Laugh along.

PROTON PACKS – Paradox (Mom’s Basement Records, momsbasementrecords.bigcartel.com)

Italian punks Proton Packs are back with their fourth full-length LP, and their second coming out of Mom’s Basement. Proton Packs are Ramones-core, and they also claim The Misfits, Lillingtons, Head, and Iron Maiden as influences. I guess I can see most of that. The music is big and chunky, with loads of chukka-chukka guitars. The songs are dark, too, with most of them being modal or in minor keys. Individually, the songs are decent enough, with a skate punk vibe. But there’s too much sameness throughout the 14 tracks. There’s no variation in tempo, no variation in the sound. With maybe the exception of “Business As Unusual,” which includes a synth, providing at least a little something different with an 80s new wave vibe underneath the punk rock. “The Mystery Zone” also uses synth, but only in the opening seconds, and here and there through the track. Other than that, there’s no difference in the sound of this track and any of the others. It’s hard to tell when one track starts and the next one ends, other than the moment of silence between them. Now, don’t get me wrong, Proton Packs are a good band. The songs are powerful and energetic. But there’s just too much sameness here to keep my attention over a 33-minute span.

SATURDAY’S HEROES – Turn Up The Music! (Lövely Records, www.llyrecords.com)

Swedish punk-fucking-rock! This is melodic punk, with plenty of power and pop, lots of big gang vocals, and a party atmosphere. I love the way the lead vocals are belted out. “We’re All Done” opens the album with a great street punk vibe and an anthemic quality. This is the kind of song that gets everyone in the club singing along and jumping around. Several of the songs are big street punk anthems, too, and I hear a warm organ in the background – something that’s becoming more common with bands of this genre. “Dead of Night” starts with a great classic melodic punk sound reminding me of Youth Brigade from back in the 80s, then speeds up to become skate punk track, going back and forth between slower and faster paces, giving it a nice varied texture. “Seven Seas” has a great loping rock and roll feel, and I love the great big “This Is The End,” a track that sounds as if it closes out their live sets (or did before the pandemic). “Turn Up The Music” closes the mini LP, and is a favorite, with a bluesy rock and roll sound for the first half, then turning into a raucous street punk anthem. This is fun stuff.


THE HAPPY FITS – What Could Be Better (www.thehappyfits.com)

Well, damn! Nothing beats a record where you can just tell the band had a blast making it, and I can hear the joy throughout the ten songs on The Happy Fits’ sophomore LP. The three-piece is made up of guitar (Ross Montieth), drums (Luke Davis) and….cello? (Calvin Langman). Although Langman takes on most of the lead vocals, all three sing, and harmonize, providing a thick, rich vocal sound. The opening track (and lead single) is oddly not representative of the rest of the LP, sounding completely different from any other song. But it’s still a ton of fun. It’s “Go Dumb,” and it’s pretty rocking garage. The only change I would make to it might a slight increase in the tempo, but it’s got a huge sound, and man, that cello rocks! The balance of the LP is uniformly upbeat joyous indie rock and pop, with the exception of the penultimate “Get a Job,” which is a harder rocking song, almost like grunge – but more like a grunge song from a rock opera. The arrangement and writing are very theatrical – and superb! In this dramatic aspect it reminds me a little bit of Queen. The guitar and cello work as percussion with the drums, pummeling away incessantly, propelling the vocals. I love the exuberant “No Instructions,” with its moments of Beatles-esque pop. The 50s doo-wop retro pop of “Moving” is a ton of fun and I hear hints of 60s cinema soundtrack and Latin influence, as well. Speaking of Latin influence, “Two of Many” has it aplenty, mixed with Afro-Caribbean beats, and it’s my favorite track of the LP. Its energetic rhythm, breezy melody, and huge vocals (including gloriously huge harmonies) are infectious, and I dare you to listen to this song without getting up and dancing. Another favorite is the delicate “The Garden.” Plucked cello and guitar punctuate the beautiful soaring vocals. Every single song on this record is gorgeous, beautiful, fun. At the risk of sounding effusive, I will declare that this record will end up on my list of the year’s best. Plus, you can check out our fearless editor’s recent interview with the band here.

BLOODY YOUR HANDS – Sunday Scaries (bloodyyourhands.bandcamp.com)

New York’s Bloody Your Hands brings us their third full-length LP, the first since 2017’s “Monsters Never Die.” And though it was written over a two-year period, its themes of anxiety, isolation, hope, loss, exhaustion, death, and struggling with adulthood are more relevant than ever. And the ten songs here are nothing short of remarkably gorgeous. My number one favorite of the album has to be the glorious “Insincere Apologies,” a song of communications breakdowns in relationships, the inability to be vulnerable when confronted with threatening situations, and the feelings of hopelessness that induces. The music oscillates between a pretty delicate guitar line with an ominous bass and a loud grunge rock and roll sound. It’s like when you try to start a discussion about a bad situation, first apologetically, then becoming defensive when confronted The chorus opens up, like a person shouting, huge and expansive; “Wasted and dysfunctional / Wasted and dysfunctional / Waste my breath, like yelling at a wall.” I really like the opener, “Insomnia,” too. The quick tempo in the instrumentals contrasts with the slower glide of the vocals, the song seeming to be in 12/8 time, the vocals on the 4/4 rhythm and the instruments doing a quick 3/4. There’s some cool 90s indie sounds in the guitars on this one, with some pretty chord progressions. “Checked Out” is, perhaps, the most punk-like of the songs, with a strong pop punk edge, though the melody and arrangement are of a more mature indie-rock nature. The song deals with hating your job, but not being able to find anything that pays well enough (“More money makes a dent, but I’m not happy just paying rent,” declares the chorus) and doing what you love just doesn’t pay. The grunge-like hit of the LP is “Weird Winter,” a song of self-loathing that has a big gang-vocal chorus of “I am not your hero, I’ll never be.” The verses deal with the paralysis one can feel, the struggle between wanting to be with people and to just be alone, and ending up lying in bed, letting yourself rot away. Themes of isolation continue on the spoken word piece, “Isolation By Design.” As an acoustic guitar plays quietly, a narrator talks about the loneliness we all feel as we isolate ourselves, even in a city as dense as New York, “It’s isolation by design, to be surrounded by water, but dying of thirst,” we’re told. “There Are Heroes In You” seems to speak about being overly dependent on another person. “You’re my home, you’re the only reason I am here,” the song says. “We’re waiting for heroes, there are heroes in you.” I love how the song starts out more quietly in waltz time, then a about two thirds through, it changes completely into a very dark, driving song in a 4/4 rhythm, the urgency palpable. I could continue talking about each track and how good they are – because every track is really that good. Every time I think I’ve picked one favorite, another plays and I have to reevaluate. The songs are inventive, original, very engaging, and varied. This record is very recommended!

CATHOLIC GUILT – This Is What Honesty Sounds Like (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com)

Melbourne, Australia band Catholic Guilt are seeing American release of their new EP via Southern California’s Wiretap Records. The five-piece play big, expansive pop punk and emo inspired music, similar in ways to what was being made in the 2000s. There’s an epic quality these songs, and the songs pack an emotional wallop. The opening track, “A Boutique Affair,” is the lead single, and it ranges from poppy indie rock to emo pop. The harmonized vocals are very slick, with a commercial radio appeal. “Song of the Renter” has a dusty western folk-punk feel to it, with lyrics that seem to be about the greed of redevelopers and land speculators, and the damage they do to the ability of too many people to have an affordable place to live. “Life In Three Part Harmony” lives its name. It also starts quietly, and builds steadily. Just as life does. And “The Awful Truth” has a jazzy swing and swagger to it, but is just as big and emotional as the other tracks. “Nothing” is the closer, and it has an anthemic quality to it, for a big and strong finish. Catholic Guilt certainly are good at what they do. If you enjoy this big emo style, you’re going to love this EP.

KID DAD – In a Box (Long Branch Records, longbranchrecords.bigcartel.com)

On this debut LP from German band Kid Dad, are echoes of 1990s Seattle mixed with modern dreaminess. This is slickly produced alternative rock, with big dynamics and big production values. The opening track, “A Prison Unseen,” is epic in scale, with loud heavy guitars and shimmering keyboards. Marius Vieth’s vocals are belted out powerfully, and when the band pulls back we get quiet confidence. “Happy” is straight up grunge, and the heaviest, hardest-hitting song of the LP. The licks on the chorus sound oh so familiar, as if Kurt Cobain himself could have written them. The heavy reverb in the guitar on the quieter parts is cool, giving those parts of the song a darker eerie feel. There are plenty of songs in the vein of “(I Wish I Was) On Fire,” a track that feels like it came from the 2000s. Melodic and rocking, yet dreamy, and loaded with emotion, it’s the kind of thing the alternative radio was full of back in the day. Vieth’s vocals range from angst-filled to breathy, echoing the big dynamic range of the instrumentals. If you like this genre, Kid Dad acquit themselves quite well.

LASSE PASSAGE – Sunwards (Sofa Music, www.sofamusic.no)

Lasse Passage plays light, jazzy folk-pop. If you think you hear a slight accent to his rich vocals, you’re right; Passage hails from Norway. The opening track, “Miles Away,” is my favorite of the LP. It starts out with gorgeously dark, fluttery acoustic guitar and vocals. It’s really beautiful singer-songwriter fare. The song starts to get a little thicker with flute and synths, and then drums join in and the folk turns to pop for a bit, before returning to the fluttery guitar. I like the breeziness of “Heartbeat.” It’s got an interesting blend of feelings; I get a sunny beach day mixed with some rural Americana, with slide guitar and horns in the arrangement. “Homecoming” is a perfect exemplar of the majority of the songs on this LP. It’s folksy pop music with a jazzy beat and horns in the arrangement. “Sunwards” is another one on the jazzier side of things, a nice bouncy beat, trumpet, a light touch, and even whistling at the end. And I also love “300.000 Francs,” a pretty song of memories, romantic and otherwise. It’s a wistful tune, quiet and sad, full of loss. The mix of acoustic guitar, piano, and brushed drums is beautiful, and Passage’s vocals have a delicate touch. The overall feel of the album is quite airy and weightless, and listening to this record can help ease your burdens.

ODD ROBOT – A Late Night Quarantiniac (youtube.com/channel/ UCi3ifreFPcx9hgbAYCTOvJQ)

Odd Robot has decided to self-release acoustic versions of some of their songs from their first two LPs, and their split with Tiny Stills, plus a new one, as a digital only release, available on Spotify and YouTube. And wow, the songs sound completely different this way! Part of it is the acoustic treatment, but more of it is a conscious decision on the part of the robots to slow things down, take it easy, and not be in such a manic rush. One of the best examples of this is “Amnesiatic.” The original is raucous and loud, if not speedy. The acoustic version is soft and solemn, just the acoustic guitar and Andy Burris’ vocals, as pleading and melodic as ever, though the emotive quality of his vocals comes through even more clearly here. “Take Me Away” transforms from an edgy pop punk anthem, with driving bass and pounding drums, into an impassioned waltz time ballad. On the “Amnesiatic” LP, the opening track, “Sell Your Soul” is pounding pop punk song, but here it’s delicate, with acoustic guitar and distant “percussion” from what I think are hand claps. “I Am a Cortisol Factory” is no longer the high-strung indie rocker of the track on the split EP; instead it has some exquisite flamenco guitar sounds and a much easier feel. “Boil Through” undergoes a big change from poppy grunge rock and roll to dusty western folk. My favorite Odd Robot song, “Green and Yellow Wires” (which they never play live) is my favorite of this acoustic LP, too. The part that hits me hardest is the dueling guitars in the opening, something that is used sparingly in the electric version. Here in the acoustic version those guitars keep at each other throughout most of the song. They’re lighter, too, and the song is slowed down and becomes the romantic ballad it was always meant to be. The new one is the country-like “Bartender’s Blues” and it reminds me of some of the Chicago singer-songwriter music I group up with, like Steve Goodman. The closer is “Knife and a Cigarette,” from the debut LP “A Late Night Panic.” Here, along with the acoustic guitar we get bowed bass and violin, and it is achingly beautiful. Though all but one of these tracks are previously released on other records, this is a fresh, brand new LP that sounds like no other Odd Robot record, and like their others, it’s wonderful.

SHEENJEK – Unclever (Seventh Rule Recordings, www.seventhrule.com)

I’m not a big metal fan, and I usually don’t go in for the really heavy stuff. But every once in awhile, a heavy metallic band comes along that breaks all the “rules” and makes music that I can really get into. Portland’s Sheenjek is one such band. The music is definitely heavy, hard-hitting stuff, but it’s also melodic, with strong post-punk leanings. The band claims to have started as a book club in their humorous press release, and that quickly disintegrated into a demonstration of self-defense knife techniques and joint rolling techniques. Too much booze, too much weed, and too many books led to an extended drum solo that became the band’s first live performance. Ha! “Monkey Brains” is a bombastic track with some cool angular guitar lines that remind me of some of the great post-hardcore post-emo stuff from the 90s, and the track may be my favorite of the bunch. It’s a little slower, but it’s loaded with tension and sludgy bass. Magazine’s 1978 post-punk classic “The Light Pours Out of Me” was famously covered by Ministry in 2003, with a reasonably faithful and un-Ministry-like rendition. Now Sheenjek is covering it, slowing it ever so slightly, and sludging it up a lot. The angularity of the next song title, “If Not Why Not If So How” reflects the bit of angularity in the melody. It’s another that harkens back to 90s post-hardcore and early emo, before emo turned to screamo. I love the organized chaos in this one toward the end, with the instruments all seeming to be playing different dissonant lines, yet they all gel together into a coherent whole. “Lazy Boy” changes character three quarters of the way through. It starts out as just another heavy metallic grungy sludgy song, with metallic guitar jammage. But with just over two minutes remaining on the clock it complete changes to an urgent melodic punk edged rocker with hints of DC emo buried beneath the layers of noise. You can hear it in the way the vocals are shouted out and the soaring sound of the guitars. “Damocles” definitely shows its metal roots, but it’s got some definite jangle going on here and there. The closing track is “Bootlikker,” and it’s where the band really shines. There’s so much going on in this track, from the quiet opening notes to the slow slushy intro, and then the gritty post-hardcore, with an intense wall of sound. When the rhythms start getting all mathish, it may leave your head spinning. The song keeps shifting all over the place, and it’s a fascinating listen. There are precious few heavy bands I’ll go out of my way to see, Now I have one more, whenever live music starts again, and should Sheenjek decide to come down the coast.

SLIGHT OF – Other People (Dadstache Records, www.dadstacherecords.com)

Slight Of is an ever evolving collective of musicians centered on the songs of New Yorker Jim Hill. The songs are unabashed glam and power pop. Guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards make up the instrumentation, and it’s interesting how the different keyboard sounds dramatically change the feel of the songs; sometimes they’re new wave bubblegum pop, sometimes they’re more rock and roll, and sometimes they have a dreamy sound. For example, the opening track, “The Sims,” has buzzy poppy synths that dominate the sugary sweet pop sound. The lyrics are less bubbly than the music, referencing spending all night playing the titular video game, wasting time “on a world that doesn’t even exist. It may be an allegory for chasing unachievable dreams, which would be pretty depressing. “Other People” goes dark 80s rock and roll, with jangle reverb-laden guitars and a warm organ tone, and lyrics about a relationship stuck in a rut and gone cold, with thoughts drifting to the other people in our lives. “Americana” has a vaguely, well, Americana feel, and the vocals on the verses remind me ever so slightly of Current 93’s David Tibet, half sung, half spoken, with dismal lyrics. The song is about the desperation of so many in America, how our lives never turn out to be what we want or what the American Dream is supposed to have promised. I like “Townie 490,” which sounds like something Elvis Costello might have written, with a nice power pop sound.

I’m not normally a big fan of the slower ballads, but ironically my favorite tracks on this LP are such songs. “Winter’s Maze” is a chilling song of becoming inured to and feeling stuck in a toxic relationship. “Oh what you do to me / You know it hurts so gracefully / These aching bones have come to know / The bruise that makes them feel at home,” says one verse. The music is spare and lonely sounding, with ethereal synths and bluesy guitar. “Oh what you give to me / You take it so easily,” another verse declares, as the music builds. “And it feels like new when you walk in the room / If it were warmer / Maybe I’d have the sense to leave.” The song sends shivers through my soul. And “Hall of Songs,” the penultimate track of the album, has a sort of unearthly version of a 50s doo-wop ballad, a heavenly choir providing backing vocals.

This sophomore release from Slight Of has some real downer lyrics, man, but some of these songs are pretty cathartic. This is the real emo, buddy.


BENCHMARKS – Summer, Slowly (benchmarks.bandcamp.com)

You would think that Benchmarks, hailing from Nashville, would focus on country-tinged music, or at least “Americana” influenced alternative rock. But they remind me more of a cross between Austin, Texas band Big Loser (formerly known as Free Kittens and Bread) and Divided Heaven (formerly of Los Angeles, now calling the East Coast home). The music has the emotional content of Divided Heaven, and the indie-nerd song writing of Big Loser. The production is pretty slickly done, the band is super tight, and the musicianship is stellar. The overall feel is indie rock, but several of the songs are definitely punk influenced. I like “Cicada Year, Pt. 1,” with its big rhythm guitars and strutting bass line, and the lyrics that refer to how we enjoy the summer, never giving a thought to the coming of winter, a reference to youthful exuberance without a care of what will happen as we age. And “Our Finest Hour” is a very timely song, about how those of us born into privilege but committed to real change for the better need to move back from trying to lead and allow those most impacted by injustice to do so. We need to listen, learn, and support the change that will bring about a better society. It has big punk influenced guitars and some great whoa-oh backing vocals. “The Price of Postcards” is a pretty raucous one that I like, and the lyrics are one of the inevitable tour songs – being away from home, traveling from place to place, how everything is the same but different everywhere – and missing the one you love. When the song calms, there’s an organ that comes in and gives a nice warm feel that’s not out of place, as the lyrics referencing dreams of what will be when you get home. The guitar solo, though, could be dropped as superfluous, and the guitar wizardry thrown in at the end feels extraneous and boastful. Another tour song makes an appearance, “Leave the Light On.” This one is about growing weary of the rut of touring, and planning to leave it all and go home. It’s got one of the punkier feels, too, but also another unnecessary guitar solo. And the arrangement of “Technicolor” reminds me a lot of Big Loser, with the opening just being guitar and vocals, before the whole band comes in, and then revisiting that contrast throughout the song. “The Good Fight reminds me a lot of Divided Heaven – the vocals have some of that band’s vocalist Jeff Berman’s sound. Sometimes the production goes a bit overboard, like the use of “atmospheric” synths and guitar solos on “Six One Way” and other songs. It ends up feeling too slick and less honest. I think that’s what bums me about all the guitar solos. They sound inauthentic and don’t add to otherwise good songs. The closer is “Cicada Year, Pt. 2,” and it picks up the theme from part one, but this time it’s a song of acceptance instead of denial. “Summer into autumn slips / let me embrace this transformation, and embrace the life I own / and cherish all these songs upon my lips.” Not just accepting aging and change, but embracing it. Good advice for us all.

DEVON KAY AND THE SOLUTIONS – Limited Joy (A-F Records, www.a-frecords.com)

You may be most familiar with Devon Kay from his role in the band Direct Hit! but Devon has, for years, fronted his own band, too. On this latest LP the band eschews the pop punk of its past and has evolved to a bigger sound grounded in ska punk. Yes, ska punk. The band is bigger, adding a trumpet and trombone, plus synths. The songwriting is bigger, too, to take advantage of all these new instruments. You’ve possibly heard some of the singles they’ve been rolling out in advance of the LP release, so you know what I mean. The opening track was the most recent single, “Oh Glorious Nothing,” and it’s a pretty glorious track, actually. The glorious nothing referred to is oblivion, as in death, and the song seems to be about the search for something, anything, that can make you feel alive, but never finding it, and finding solace in the end. The music is big, with horns and synths providing a full sound, at one point with the horns and synths sounding almost like a baroque ensemble. The other single that was released ahead of the LP comes next, “Anything At All,” and it has the same ska punk sound and a wonderfully elaborate arrangement. There is a short time when the music and the vocals get aggro, but it’s way too short. “252 Brighton Ave.” was previously released, as well, and it has a vaguely Celtic rock feel that I like, as if The Pogues decided to add a ska element to their songs. The horns in this one are just gorgeous.

The first song of the LP not released ahead of the album, “One Horse,” is a straight up pop song, with processed vocals and heavy synths. The horns are still there, seeming oddly out of place, but the lyrics are in line with other songs. I hear references to time slipping away, and Kay’s declaration “I don’t wanna be here, I don’t wanna be alone.” This is one I could almost hear breaking through to commercial success, if given the opportunity. I like “In a Prairie State,” which has the feel of a rock and roll song mixed with ska – ska-rock instead of ska-punk? “Evermore” takes the band in more of an indie direction, with a smooth sound. The arrangement is complex with synths, guitars, and horns playing interweaving lines. “His & Hearse” is a big, fun sing-along, and the sound gets beautifully thick. The closer is “Less Talk, Less Rock,” and it reminds me of what PUP might sound like if they slowed down a bit and added horns. The band are creating some wonderfully involved arrangements that really make these songs stand out. People who are expecting this band to stay stagnant and keep playing the same old pop punk may be disappointed, but if you like good music and are open to more than just guitar, bass, and drums arrangements, prepare for a good time.

EXPERT TIMING – Whichever, Whatever (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, countyourluckystars.limitedrun.com)

Expert Timing are seem like two bands in one, which unite on the final track of this new five-song EP. Two of the songs that are sung mainly by bassist Katrina Snyder are lovely indie pop. Two of the songs that are sung mainly by guitarist Jeff Snyder are a bit grungier, definitely more indie rock and outside the pop realm. I do tend to like the indie-pop songs better. “Gravity” is a song of anxiety in trying to plan life, but its unpredictability gets in the way of that. Katrina’s vocals are pretty, and I like the off-kilter rhythms that reflect the odd turns life can take. I also like her song “Constant Melody,” another pretty indie popper, this time with a smoother feel. Of Jeff’s two songs, “Good Things” is a downer of a song about how “Good things just don’t just happen to me.” The mood of the music does feel a little lighter than the lyrics would imply, especially when the full band is playing – it’s a bit darker in the intro, when it’s mainly the bass playing a very Seattle line. And “Luckin’ Out” is even more a descendant of the Pacific Northwest music scene. The closing song, “My Body,” unites these two disparate styles, melding Katrina’s pop side and Jeff’s grunge. We get the dark grungy guitars and bass, but the lightness of Katrina’s vocals and the start-stop melodic lines of her songs. The song is also probably the most lyrically important, on the topic of a woman’s right to control her own body. An interesting dichotomy comes together.

L.A. WITCH – Play With Fire (Suicide Squeeze Records, www.suicidesqueeze.net)

It’s cool that I just watched the Go Go’s documentary on Showtime last night, and today I’m listening to L.A. Witch. Not that this trio sound like the quintet that was popular back in the 80s and helped drive MTV success. But it’s that the Go Go’s were groundbreaking in that they were all women who played their own instruments and wrote their own songs, something unheard of back then. So many bands have followed their lead and they are some great bands out there now that wouldn’t have had a chance at success without the Go Go’s. And, though we know L.A. Witch are all women, what do they sound like if they aren’t the pop music of their progenitors? This is dark garage power pop, emphasis on the dark. There is heavy use of reverb, and the vocals are relaxed to the point of sounding “under the influence.” I hear psych and surf in the guitars, and the keyboards provide a strong retro psych feel. “Dark Horse” is a favorite, with its 6/8 meter, acoustic guitar, and lighter touch. The organ gives it a strong warm retro psych feel, like this is something out of the 60s peace and love era. The vocals are dreamy and the whole song has a hazy drugged feel. Past the halfway mark it changes to a 4/4 beat for a bit and we get some guitar jamming going on. The opening track, too, “Fire Starter,” has a mix of garage psych, and surf, the soundtrack you might hear after taking a downer and washing it down with a few shots of whiskey, a smoky haze hanging overhead. I know it’s odd to keep harping on this, but the songs on this LP would be the perfect soundtrack for a movie with drug use scenes from the 60s and 70s. That’s a compliment – this is cool stuff.

LEWIS – Son On The Floor (Sona Baby Records, www.sonababyrecords.com)

Lewis is Christopher Lewis, formerly of the punk band Kinison. This guy does it all – he writes the songs, he sings, and he plays all the instruments. The music ranges from the straight-ahead power pop of “She’s Fine” to the grunge-lite of “Bathe Clean” and “Nervous Too,” from the smooth indie rock of “What We Give” to the sparkling psych pop of “Pargana.” “Settle Down” is a driving rock and roll tune in a classic 70s vein. The opening track, “TOBI,” has dark sound to it, alternating between jangly pop on the verses and grunge-lite during the chorus. It’s got an epic theatrical quality to it that makes it one of my favorites of the album. That glam-like power pop song, “She’s Fine,” is another favorite. It brings up images of late 70s rock and roll classics “blasting” through the little transistor radio I had as a kid. “Pargana” is not only sparkling psych pop, it’s big and sprawling, especially that huge chorus. The acoustic guitar adds a nice element to the song, giving it a bit of intimacy amidst the massiveness of the song. The songs on this record are varied enough to keep from getting stale, yet cohesive enough to recognize they’re all from the same band.

THE SEWER RATS – Magic Summer (ProRawk Records, www.prorawkrecords.com)

The Sewer Rats are a German pop punk band seeing a US record release, and a case of a European band that sounds very much like a US pop punk band. The songs range from skate punk top Ramones-core, with a strong Fat Wreck influence. The songs are silly fun-punk, too, in the vein of bands like Teenage Bottlerocket. There are songs like “I’m Quitting My Job,” which has lyrics mostly repeating that title phrase, then talks about going on tour. The band likes to sing about what they don’t want to do, too. “Don’t Wanna Go to the Dentist” is a skate punk track with plenty of whoa-ohs and lyrics about the fear of dentists, while “I Don’t Wanna Go to the Shrink No More” is pure Ramones-core about the downside of seeing a therapist. The aversion to going places gets especially desperate on “Don’t Wanna Leave My Room No More,” a Green Day influenced track with a mid-tempo lope and sad depressing lyrics. I like the opening track, too, “Rejuvenate,” about staying young in mind and deed – “It’s time to rejuvenate! / Grab your board, let’s go skate!” the song commands, after a found sound bite that states “Yes, growing up is a problem.” The music is speedy, poppy, bouncy and fun. There’s the requisite “love” songs, “My Sweet Chun-Li” and “My Baby Is at Groezrock (and I Am Not),” the latter a reference to one of Europe’s major punk festivals. Look, The Sewer Rats aren’t breaking any new ground here, and they aren’t making any political statements. But the music is bouncy and fun and they do a great job of it. You don’t go see TBR or Masked Intruder for profundities, either, do you? A nice release for the hot, magic summer (though this summer seems to be cursed by black magic).

SINGING LUNGS – Phone From Car (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, countyourluckystars.limitedrun.com)

Utilizing recordings techniques developed for the pandemic lockdown, this EP was recorded entirely on band members’ iPhones, the resulting files passed around and mixed together. The negative is that the result doesn’t sound nearly as clean as something recorded in a studio. The positive is that it allows Singing Lungs to get new music released. We get four new songs of 90s style indie-punk, guitars jangling furiously as the vocals are belted out with angsty emotion. The songs are poppy without coming across as sappy or bubblegum. My favorite is probably the simplest of the record, “Present Tense.” It’s also the poppiest, and completely lacking any pretension – it’s just a bouncy fun one. “Come Down Hard” is a little more indie crossed with power pop, and it’s got a bit of a hard edge to it. The least successful song, in my opinion, is the closer, “Walking and Crawling.” It’s the most different from the others, trying to be sort of an indie ballad. I think Singing Lungs works better when they’re rocking out with a good edgy pop tune.

SWALLOW’S ROSE – Live, Love, Hate, and Hope (ProRawk Records, www.prorawkrecords.com)

ProRawk is bringing European pop punk to America! Swallow’s Rose is a German band, singing in English, and sounding like they could have come from the West Coast of the United States. The songs are uniformly uplifting, reminding me of Seattle’s Success. There’s a thread of positivity throughout the ten songs on this LP, and a big, glorious sound. The title track opens the LP, and is a perfect introduction to the band and their sound. Harmonized vocals, rapid tempo, big guitars, and plenty of opportunities for the crowd to sing along are here. I also really like “When We Were Kings.” It’s got more than a bit of street punk sound and huge gang vocals, bringing another Seattle band to mind, The Drowns (which makes sense, since that band shares members with Success). And “Our Song” is another favorite, with a strong West Cost pop punk sound. Some of the songs stray from pop punk into skate punk sounds, like “We Are Not Dead,” a track that focuses on power and speed, taking more queues from the Epitaph sound of bands like Bad Religion than from pop punk. This song has a darker edge, too, like a lot of skate punk. “Guns & Pain” blends skate punk and hints of street punk and even a bit of a ska beat, big vocals on the chorus and a dark edge. And the closer, “Promises,” is a mix of dark skate punk and big whoa-oh pop punk vocals. It always gets me when I hear European bands play a style that I thought was so unique to a particular region in the US. The world is, indeed, getting smaller, and we’re all part of one community. Swallow’s Rose are showing they are model citizens of our community.


BELLHEAD – Unicorn Bones (bellhead.bandcamp.com)

Bellhead is a unique duo, consisting of two basses and a drum machine. Karen Righeimer plays the “low bass” and sings, while Ivan Russia plays the “high bass,” sings, and operates the drum machine. The music is post punk melded with classic Chicago industrial dance “Wax Trax” sounds. The opening track even channels a bit of Jello Biafra. That song, “Snuff Film 1974,” is easily the darkest of the quintet of tracks, about a snuff film in which a leather-clad man murders a little girl, and the narrator is horrified, declaring he doesn’t want to watch, but he never stops. The basses growl viciously, and the drum machine pounds mercilessly, some eerie electronic effects adding to the atmosphere. “Always (Running After the Sun)” has a real retro 80s pop sound, too, quieter, with the high bass and piano playing the melodic lines with a far-away sound. I like the line in the lyrics that says “Who says love is a victimless crime?” in this love song about chasing after the one you want. Another super dark one is the industrial “Knife.” “You look so pretty. Under the dead lights / You won’t look so pretty, when you feel my knife.” The bass grinds and pounds with the drum machine, and noise effects swirl through reverb during this sinister song of evil intent. Though there are definite echoes of past genres in this EP, in today’s musical environment it sounds fresh and unique, so different from anything else being made today.

ERA BLEAK (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)

The band’s name is perfect for our times, as this era certainly is bleak. As band member Zach Brooks put it, "The year is 2020 and we are living in a 1980s punk dystopian sci-fi novel. A pandemic is raging. When we are not donning masks to go out in public, we have nothing to do besides smoke legal weed out of electronic cigarettes and lose ourselves in disinformation. The president of the United States is Jello Biafra's worst nightmare... a buffoon so grotesque we would have had a hard time believing the character was realistic had our current reality actually been a 1980s punk dystopian sci-fi novel.” And as the opening track, from which the band takes their name, states, “Things get shittier every week / No hope for the future in this era bleak.” The music matches the sentiment, too, with a spare, austere sound. The instrumentation is thin, the vocals belted out in a way that’s part spoken word, part singing, and the whole thing feels like the soundtrack to a desolate post apocalyptic punk rock world. Sometimes the guitars have an interesting surf sound, like on “MRI,” one of my favorites of the LP. It’s a twisted sort of surf sound, though, like trying to surf a wave of dirt and trash in the ruins of a major city. “Option” has an urgent feel to it, with the bass driving things hard and the tempo picked up somewhat. It’s about the “panic stricken overload” we can get when faced with too many options in our modern consumer society. “Robot” has a cool mechanical rhythm and guitar line, with lyrics that are a call out to people who have no originality and obey the dictates of society like robots. Even with the minimalist instrumentation, Era Bleak manages to have the energy of an 80s hardcore band, and the combination of hardcore and sparseness make for an interesting sound. Era Bleak is the soundtrack of today.

DRUG COUPLE – Choose Your Own Apocalypse (PaperCup Music, www.papercupmusic.com)

Drug Couple, the real-life couple of Becca and Miles Robinson, began writing the songs for this, their sophomore EP, back in 2016, when Donald Trump was campaigning and elected to be president. The decided to focus on songs about what they felt would be the coming apocalypse, though they did not now how prescient they would be, with a global pandemic, protests for equal rights and justice for racial minorities, and the growing divide in this country, politically and socially, leading 2020 to be a violent disaster of a year. The six songs on the EP generally deal with falling in love during an apocalypse, and holding onto that love tightly in the worst of times. The opening track, “2027,” tells the story of ghosts hanging out in New York City, seven years after the apocalypse. I love how the song “No Legged Dog” is a blend of bouncy melodic pop and noisy gritty rock. The contrast between the fuzzed guitars and the bright keyboards, between the pounding percussion and the boisterous melodies, the urgent rhythms and relaxed vocals, is pretty marvelous. A favorite track is “Bottomless,” and it’s one of the most different from the others, with less noise, a slower tempo, clear, sad vocals, and guitars that wobble like they’re underwater. The title refers to love as a bottomless pit, yet “I’ll love you more.” “The Ghost” trades the guitar focus for percussion, keyboards, and front and center vocals. This pretty one shimmers and glimmers. This is pretty good stuff.

FAIR VISIONS – A Way Out (fairvisions.bandcamp.com)

Channeling bits of OMD, David Bowie and New Order, synth pop purveyor Fair Visions offer up six songs of synth-driven new wave/post punk pop on their debut EP. The creation of Ryan Work, Fair Visions evokes the 80s with their darkly jangling pop songs. “Feels Right” reflects on Work’s move to New York City, with lyrics about feeling at home in a new place, like it was not just meant to be, it was always this way. The bass heavy song nevertheless has a distinct pop feel and danceable rhythm. I like the contrasts in the song, “Lay Out In the Sun.” Especially in the first verse, the heavy synths and breezy vocals and acoustic guitar play off nicely against each other, as the lyrics contrast the idea of doing nothing but laying out in the sun with the daily grind of eating, working, commuting, and repeating. In the closing verse, lying out in the sun is used as a simile for doing the things you want in life, rather than acting out of obligation. “Oh don’t you want to lay out in the sun? / And forget the things you left undone / You see, you think, don’t act, regret, and repeat / Is it too late too late to lay out in the sun?” The mechanical rhythms, too, are a nice contrast to the freer guitars that seem to swirl around. These songs are nice, but if I had one suggestion it would be to vary the tone a bit. Using the same synth tones on every song gets a bit overbearing.

KICKED IN THE TEETH – Death Adventure (Rare Vitamin Records, rarevitaminrecords.bandcamp.com)

I hear a strong post-hardcore vibe here. Think bands like Quicksand or Refused. This new 7” is being released in conjunction with the first vinyl release of their debut self-titled LP that came out late last year. “Dead Air” is the A-side, and it’s very much heavy edgy post-hardcore, yet there’s a strong melodic vein running through it. The B-side is the title track, and it’s poppier, yet still powerful and hard-hitting. Some of the melodic lines even remind me of early Dischord hardcore. For that reason, it’s my favorite of the two. But this band from Northwich, a smallish town in the north of the UK, is now on my radar. Good stuff.

KILL LINCOLN – Can’t Complain (Bad Time Records, www.badtimerecords.com)

Do you like ska-punk? I’m talking all out pop-filled punked out music with the joy and energy of ska, including the horns. Then you’re going to love this DC band’s latest LP. The music is uniformly bright and jumpy, and takes the best aspects of sing-along pop punk and ska and mixes them together. “Used Up” is a good one, with a speedier tempo and some crunchy guitars. I like how many of the songs could be easily rearranged to be straight-on pop punk, and they would work just as well. It’s a sign of solid songwriting how well these work. Listening to “Last Ditch Denial” I can hear it in my mind without the horns, and these songs work – but the horns add that bright dimension. “Ignorance Is Bliss” is one that starts as raging post hardcore, transforms to poppy ska punk, and then goes into full-on ska. It showcases the breadth of these musicians’ capabilities. “Confession Obsession” is a favorite, too. It’s one of the quicker tracks, and it moves easily between strong pop punk and all-out ska, with some edgier post-hardcore parts. Speaking of edgier parts, the opening of “Civil Surgery” is amazing, taking pounding rock music and playing it with horns is genius. “Quarantine Dream” is probably my favorite track of the LP; it rages the hardest, but still maintains its bright pop bounce. The horns do recede somewhat into the background on this one, adding more of an aura of ska on this great pop punk track. “Womb Envy” uses hardcore vocals over a skankin’ beat, and has a powerful metallic ending – with horns! And the closer, “Can’t Complain,” has the speediness and pop of a Pears track, though it has horns and isn’t as hardcore. Do you like ska-punk? I normally can take it or leave it, but Kill Lincoln does a fucking great job with these songs.

KNOWSO – Specialtronics Green Vision (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)

Well, they are from Ohio, after all, so the early Devo-like mania makes sense. Angular melodic lines, guitar jabs, off-kilter bass, and vocals that are spoken in unison mark the primary sound from these Cleveland punk weirdoes. This stuff is so different from just about any other music being made today it’s like a shot in the arm to a stagnant music “industry.” But just when you think you’ve got these oddballs figured out, they throw a track like “Wrong Calculator” at us. It’s a twisted spoken word piece about microbial species with robotic “backing vocals” and dark beeps and boops from synths and saxophones providing the “music.” It’s from this track that the album takes its name, as “green vision” and “blue vision” and “specialtronics” are heard being spoken about. “Green vision is two babies,” the robot voices declare. And “Green vision is the first big step back” according to the track’s narrator. Huh? Confusing and comedic. “Peaceful and Extinct” is probably my favorite of the LP, with a swingin’ vibe and some intense sax noise interjections. This LP reminds me of some of the awesome “out there” records that were being released in the early to mid 80s, and is recommended if you’re a weirdo, too.

LIBRARIANS WITH HICKEYS – Long Overdue (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)

I see what you did there with the album title… Librarians With Hickeys took their time getting these songs recorded and collected together for this, their debut album, so it was, well, long overdue. For the most part, the dozen songs on this LP are power pop, but with a light touch and just a hint of psych. The opener, “Until There Was You,” is a perfect example, with a mix of fuzzy and jangly guitars, a quiet manner, but great pop hooks. I really like “Be My Plus One,” the lovely delicate love song, and its use of ukulele for a warm, twee sound, and the guest list reference is a humorous touch. “Next Time” has the sound of an 80s hit that could have been on MTV, halfway between guitar driven power pop and dreamy new wave pop, sans the synths, but with sax.

As pleasant as the front half of this album is, the back half rules. Some of the songs are a little edgier, though still smooth. There’s a heavier dose of psych in some of them, and a little more power in the power pop. “Leave Me Alone” cranks things up several notches with a garage feel blended with psychedelic overtones. The effects in the guitar tone are eerie and cool. “Poor Reception” has some familiar sounding power pop hooks that grab me, and it’s got a bridge that gets dark and goth-pop sounding. “Looking For Home” uses piano to great effect, with the guitars and organ providing a lonely sound, but the piano a bright hopeful one. And I love the 80s Joy Division/New Order meets Love and Rockets sound of “Silent Stars.” Don’t end up paying a late fee – get on this one now.

PUBLIC EYE – Music For Leisure (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)

Drunken Sailor had been on a noisy hardcore kick for a whole bunch of its most recent releases, but their latest LP, from Portland’s Public Eye, is the one of the most melodic things I think I’ve ever heard from The Juice Man’s DIY UK label. At first, given the sound of the band, I thought they were a UK band, but no, they’re as American as protesters being kidnapped in unmarked vans. With retro garage pop instrumentals and droll nearly spoken word vocals, it sounds like something that could have come from the intensely creative post punk era of the late 70s and early 80s. The guitars jangle as the vocals are belted out in a near deadpan, everything just slightly lo-fi enough for the garage sound, but not so lo-fi as to make these songs sound muddy. While there isn’t a bad track on the LP, there are some standouts. “Awful Questions” has a great mathish guitar hook repeated over and over in the minimalist tradition, and it rocks out quietly and subtly. “Neat Machines/Red Flags,” has rhythmic changes giving a math-like feel, and repeating minimalist lines, but this time there’s a smooth groove going on, so almost a cool jazz kind of sound, during the “Neat Machines” half of the track. “I Might Go” uses its guitar licks and vocals to give the track a sense of urgency, of the song being propelled forward. As I said, I like every track here, but if I would have one criticism is that there’s a little too much sameness from track to track, but this is good stuff.

THEE DIRTY RATS – Humans Out (Mandinga Records, www.mandingarecords.bandcamp.com)

Post-garage duo Thee Dirty Rats, hailing from Sao Paulo, Brazil, channel the gritty nature of one of the world’s largest cities on this LP chock full of lo-fi post-apocalyptic rock and roll. The rhythms are raw and primal, the guitars noisy as all fuck. Lo-fi is putting it mildly. And minimalism seems to be second nature to these two. The arrangements are super-sparse, with the DIY drums and guitar, plus vocals and a “broken” Moog synth being all there is. The lyrics are also reflective of a world gone mad, with songs like “Universe Is Caos,” which has lyrics “The universe is chaos / Stop, you’re making it worse” as the drums pound and the guitar picks out a simple repetitive melodic line. The robotic nature of the song is in direct opposition to the idea of chaos, which is pretty interesting. “Let’s Fight” is a little thicker in the guitar sounds, and is about, well, wanting to fight. “Modern Disease” has a funky bass feel to it, while “Oh Oh” has a great raucous garage rock sound. “Maze of Love” has a bluesy edge to it, “TDR Will Make Dirty For All Ya Girls And Boys” is a too short fun track that channels early Beastie Boys. “Headache” is the most melodic track of the LP, but that’s not saying much for this minimalist duo, since melody is not really their thing. The closer is the brilliant “Stop That Dance,” which, despite its thin arrangement, has a full feel. The contrasting vocals, the mechanical factory beat, and the grating guitars all join forces to create music for the future new stone age. This record isn’t going to be for everyone, but after there’s nothing left of the world or its societies, this is the music that will be left. Drink it up and get used to it.


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

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