COMPANION – Second Day of Spring (companionband.bandcamp.com)
Oh, my. After listening to all the raucous punk and indie rock records, Companion’s debut LP is like a breath of fresh air on the titular day. This is pretty folk music, acoustic guitar and closely harmonized vocals from identical twin sisters Sophia and Jo Babb. The songs are delicate, and their vocals are ethereal, like angels from heaven. I adore “If I Were a Ghost,” a waltz time song that has the hazy feel of a dream, with tentative strings and woodwinds creating a gossamer backdrop to the hushed vocals. Even dreamier is “Snowbank,” especially at the end of the song, when the strings swell and it becomes…magical. And songs like “How Could I Have Known” even have a bit of spring in them, pun intended, with a head bobbing and toe tapping rhythm. The instrumentation must include subtle synths, because there’s a shimmer that ebbs and flows in the background, and it’s so gorgeous. This whole album is.
DOUBLE CHEESE – The Black Album (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)
Dirty Water Records has long been one of the strongest proponents of the garage rock and roll genre, and this latest LP certainly fits in with their core mission. Double Cheese play some pretty strong garage rock, with a great retro feel. But one of the things about Double Cheese is that they aren’t even stuck in one corner of the garage world. Garage, by its nature, has a retro edge to it, but since there have been garage bands from different eras, the music has different sounds, and Double Cheese like to play around in all eras of the subgenre. For example, the opening track “Mean As F*ck,” has an 80s post-punk vibe going on for the first part of the song, but it ends with a full-on early 70s jam. The band also like to crank up the reverb and distortion, creating a tumultuous anarchic sound. I really enjoy “Sound of the Underground,” a song with bright poppy guitars, almost like modern pop punk. It’s still noisy and chaotic, of course, filled with distortion, but it has an immense sense of joy to it, as does “Pills and Wine,” which follows. I think these two are my favorite songs of the LP. Though I’m not a fan of guitar solos, the simple solo on “Pills and Wine” fits in perfectly and doesn’t come off as wanky. “Mash Potatoes” has a 70s acid rock feel, with wah-wah’ed guitars, swirly psychedelic feel, and deep fuzzed bass. “Lightnin’ Never Strikes Twice,” too, has a 70s rock feel mixed with a bit of funk and psychedelia. “HIYW” closes the LP with the noisiest, most chaotic track of the LP, having an experimental pre-industrial feel. Only one track bothers me a little bit. The chord progression on “Jail Time” seems to me to be too close to “Stepping Stone,” a classic 60s garage tune that everyone knows. Maybe it’s homage. But other than that, this is a cool take on the garage sound.
STEVE & GINIE JACKSON – Colder Than the Sea (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)
Thousand Islands Records, the label known for crunchy speedy skate punk and melodic hardcore, proudly presents… folk music? Well, Steve & Ginie Jackson call themselves a folk duo, and they do play acoustic music. But the songs certainly have a pop punk attitude and drive. Yes, you can hear Irish, Acadian, and bluegrass influences in the songs, but you can also hear folk punk influences, as well. “Into the Wild” opens the album, and the accordion’s big bold chords play off the insistent strumming of the acoustic guitar. The emphatic phrasing in the vocals has a very punk attitude to it. The muted guitar opening on many of the tracks reminds me of pretty much all the folk-punk songs I’ve ever heard, and even though “7 Billion People” includes acoustic guitar, fiddle, and mandolin, You can hear the song being done by a pop punk band. “There might be 7 billion people but all I see is you, and I don’t care for the money, I don’t care for the booze. I wanna be the lucky one you choose,” sings the chorus. Reflecting a standard topic in pop punk songs, love is the theme here. Listen to “Time to Dine,” especially the “gang” vocals that are sprinkled through the song. The melody is certainly quite poppy, and it’s easy to hear an electric band playing this. “Everybody’s Calling” is a favorite, a darker cast to the melody and huge gang whoa-oh vocals on the chorus. I also really like the lilting introduction to “Take Me to the Bottle,” which turns into a raucous folk punk tune about drinking and having a good time, forgetting about all the worries of the world and living for the moment. I also enjoy the introspective song, “The Hook.” It’s more subdued and solemn, the accordion providing a backing drone to the song, the chorus reminding me of Mission of Burma songs of yore, particularly in how the bass and accordion blend and in the vocal harmonies. It’s gorgeous. Right after this is the raucous “The Fire Is Out,” with a subtle power and melodic line reminding me of garage pop songs of the 60s. If you’re a fan of acoustic punk, give this a spin. Even though the band don’t classify themselves that way, you’re going to love this. I do.
ONE ARMED JOEY – Happiness, To Me (Sell The Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com)
One Armed Joey have been around for some eight years, and have released some EPs to critical acclaim (they’ve won four Bohemian NorBay Music Awards for Best Punk Band), but they’re just now getting around to releasing their debut full-length LP. Hailing from an area more well known for its wine than its punk rock (Sonoma County, California, north of the San Francisco Bay area), One Armed Joey play strong melodic poppy punk, music that was pouring forth from Northern California in the 90s. Though One Armed Joey are late to the game, they’re some of the foremost ambassadors for the sound, playing full tight up-tempo songs that belie the fact that they’re merely a trio. Rather than coming across like a bombastic “bro” band, a trap that is too easy to fall into for bands trying to play melodic pop punk like this, One Armed Joey come across as honest and ardent. The music has a wistful quality to it, even wit the upbeat tempos and rich arrangements, Listen to the lush guitar lines on “Home Sick.” Rather than beat you over the head with their music, they envelop you with their earnest harmonized vocals, their undulating guitars, and their creative arrangements. I love the delicate nature of the lead guitar on “Mirrors,” as it contrasts with the raucous rhythm guitar, bass, and drums, the melody in the vocals equally as delicate, giving the song a sense of floating. The surprise of the song is the rock steady bridge in the middle. I like “Lost Dog,” a song in two parts. “Lost Dog Pt. 1” is a fun loping song with layering in the instrumentals and vocals, while “Lost Dog Pt. 2” is a little more quicker-paced, and extremely well arranged. The pair of songs deals with stress, anxiety, shitty jobs that we want to quit, self-isolation, and immobilizing fear. Part 2’s lead guitars are gorgeous. “Peace In Yesterday” may be my favorite track of the album; the dynamic range is enormous, there’s some fun shifting time signatures, swirling guitars, pretty harmonics, passionate harmonized vocals, delicate quiet sections, epic raucous sections…it has it all. Solid solid debut, and highly recommended.
RIP ROOM – Alight and Resound (Spartan Records, www.spartanrecords.com)
The press materials say this is for fans of Devo and Fugazi. My first reaction was, “WTF?!” Because there aren’t two more different sounding bands and different fan bases, right? But, holy shit, it’s pretty accurate! When I first listened to the first track, “Complication,” I could hear the new wave inspired start-stop and repetitious melodic lines, but the vocals, arrangement, and attitude are pure late 80s Dischord. These songs have that partially sung, partially spoken quality that Dischord bands were doing in that era, and some of the chord progressions and staccato drum licks are very much of that style. But there’s a funky undercurrent that recalls not only Devo, but also NOMEANSNO. “Worth Repeating” is a favorite, not only for the aforementioned qualities, but also for its bridge, with descending guitar lines and a spacey synthesizer that makes an appearance. “The Timing’s Never Right” has a strong post-punk vibe going on in the mix, while “Second to None” is what it would be like if Fugazi recorded the theme song to a 60s secret agent TV show. As the album evolves, there’s less Devo and more post-punk, but the DC sound remains throughout. There’s even an instrumental track, “Discover What Your Monsters Are.” It marries a funky bass line with a cool guitar sound that’s hard to describe: it’s sort of surf-ish, but not surf, loaded with vibrato. The melodic line has lots of stops and starts and shifts. Recommended.
SLANG – Cockroach in a Ghost Town (Kill Rock Stars, killrockstars.com)
If music was on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, Slang would definitely be an extrovert. This debut LP is bold and outgoing, loud and proud. So it should be, because Slang is a “super group” of sorts, made up of Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Quasi, Wild Flag), Drew Grow (And the Pastors Wives, Careen), Kathy Foster (The Thermals), and Anita Lee Elliot (Viva Voce). Also appearing as guests on this LP are luminaries such as Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) and Mary Timony (Helium). The nine songs here have a glam feel, but in an indie rock mode. The opening track, “Wilder,” even has industrial underpinnings, with big buzzy guitars and huge backing vocals on the verses, while the chorus drips with dreamy sensuality. I really like the bouncy “King Gunn,” a song that has a pop sensibility, even as it still has a tough exterior from crunchy guitars. Some of the songs have an epic cinematic quality, like “In Hot Water,” a song that feels like it could be the theme to some movie, probably one about the difficulties of relationships. “Wrong Wrong Wrong” is a fun one, with loads of modern glam and more than a nod to Iggy Pop style garage rock. The title track is a little experimental, a little Tom Waits, and a little Bowie, making for a song that’s eerie and soars at the same time, with vocals somewhat gritty and very emotional. This is a lesson in how to do a debut LP.
WALKER BRIGADE – If Only (Big Stir Records, www.bigstirrecords.com)
This is the debut full-length LP from LA’s Walker Brigade, and full-length is an understatement! The CD release contains not just 13 tracks, but also has seven bonus cuts, for a total of 20! It’s nearly an hour of punk and grunge inspired power pop with a heavy dose of glam pop. The music is loud and brash, and the pop filled melodies and brightly harmonized vocals remind me of The New Pornographers. There’s a lot of retro inspiration on this album, too, with sounds from the 60s through the 90s. “Tower” is an amazing song that alternately feels like 60s pop music and 90s grunge, while “No,” which immediately follows, has a blend of 70s acid rock and 90s grunge. “Fancy Boots” is a favorite track, with a strong 70s mix of proto punk and garage rock, with a dose of R&B. I love its urgent feel, as if the Stooges and Rolling Stones met in a dark alley. One thing about Walker Brigade is that some of the songs sound like they might be even better live, where there’s more of a raw performance. Some of these studio recordings feel a little smoothed over, and I think adding some rough edges would increase the excitement and intensity level even over what it has now. The main LP itself has a couple of covers, and there are a few covers amongst the bonus tracks, as well. The band do a great cover of Wire’s “Sand In My Joints.” It’s even more manic and jangly than the original, and another favorite of the album. “I’m Tired” is a song written by great Mel Brooks for the film, “Blazing Saddles,” where it’s performed hilariously by the late Madeline Kahn. The Walker Brigade’s version is louder and brasher (and more in tune!). There’s an Only Ones cover, of “Lovers of Today,” which is fairly faithful to the original, but maybe with a more wistful feel in the vocals. There are a couple of Soft Boys covers, as well. The classic “I Wanna Destroy You” is here, but somewhat subdued in comparison to the gloriously huge original. And the album closes with a live recording of the inane jam, “Rock’n’roll Toilet.” Though it’s a bit long, Walker Brigade acquit themselves well on this first outing.
BISHOPS GREEN – Black Skies (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)
Street punk? Pub rock?
Canadian Oi? All terms that could be used for Bishops Green, the quartet from Vancouver, BC. There’s
lots of rock and roll with a punk edge. There are gritty guitars and gravely vocals. There are a lot of fist
pump inspiring gang vocals. And a lot of darkness in the sound. If you’re a fan of the genre, by all means,
give this a spin. To me, though, the seven songs all sound too much alike, all the same tempo, all the same
volume level, all with the exact same tone and feel. Unlike most bands that play this style of music, the
songs are not short and biting – they’re long; not a single one is under four minutes, and a couple are longer
than five minutes. It’s all a bit too much of sameness for me. The musicians are obviously talented, but I
just wish they had more variety in these songs.
BOOZE & GLORY – Raising the Roof (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)
More street punk
from Pirates Press Records, the main proponent of the genre these days. Booze & Glory is a long-time Oi
band from London with international connections in Poland and Sweden. They play modern English Oi,
replete with huge sing-along vocals and punk-influenced arrangements. These are raging party songs, with
the title track being an ideal closing track to a live set. It’s big and glorious, and sure to get the whole
crowd singing and fist pumping. All four of these songs, really, have a big sound, with lots of encouraging
lyrics and punked up rock and roll guitars. The songs do have some variety in sound, though, with “C’est
Le Vie” featuring darker verses and big bright choruses, and even a hint of ska-punk rhythm. This is how
modern Oi should be done.
BOX ELDER – Minimums (linktr.ee/Boxelder)
Wyoming’s Box Elder’s sophomore release is a six-song
EP full of pop hooks and dripping with emotion. The music is expansive, taking in elements of dream pop,
yet also informed by emotional pop punk of bands like Spanish Love Songs and Western Settings. The
arrangements are thick, vocals soar, and guitars jangle. The title track that opens the EP has a bounce to it,
yet has an immense sound. “Bug” has a lovely pop lilt set against gritty guitars, while the humorously titled
“Chucklefuck” is a striding insistent track. “Keeper” is the obligatory ballad, but it never feels bogged
down; rather it soars. It’s the kind of song that will make you want to pull a lighter out of your pocket and
wave it in the air. I like the mix of indie pop and shoegazy wall of guitars on “Gothling,” and “Salt” closes
the EP with dreaminess and a dash of 80s new wave pop. This is good stuff.
FORMER LIVES – Ceremony of Leaving (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings,
Shimmering guitars, glistening synths, and melancholy vocals make up the
components of the five songs on this EP. The sad melodies contrast with the bright instrumentals, and the
warm analog synths produce sounds that you just don’t hear that often anymore in this digital age. ‘80s new
wave is echoed in the instrumentation in songs like “Cordon Sanitaire,” though the melody feels more like
modern indie, with an almost Stereolab-like ethereal feel in the vocals. The closing minute of this track will
surely make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, sounding like it comes from some misty dream or
a past life. This leads into “Opportunity Dead On Mars,” a short interlude that sounds very otherworldly.
An out of tune piano is a bold choice to introduce the cleverly titled closing track, “Dear In Headlights,” the
grittiest track of the EP, with dissonant guitars and spacey synth sound effects. What a different and unique
record! This is going to stay in rotation for a while.
NO TRIGGER – Acid Lord (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)
New England punk band No Trigger
had most of their activity two decades ago, but they’re still around and stirring again, after five years of
recorded silence. This new EP for Red Scare features five songs that range from hardcore to pop punk,
some of it tongue in cheek funny punk, like the opening title track. It’s a raging metallic hardcore track
complete with amazing sound effects and production. “Ah, hey, Bones! How big of a middle finger can I
create with words?” is the question at the start of the track, and the answer comes back in the form of the
song. It’s speedy and pounding, and obviously the band are having a great time playing it. “Antifantasy” is
an excellently executed song about the decline of the nation, the rise of neo-Nazi fascism, and the political
correctness and virtue signaling of the rest of masses. “Brainwashed” is a fun ska pop-punk song about the
right wing’s active implementation of indoctrination in our schools. Anti-drug education and pushing
Christianity while ignoring core education are features of their agenda that many of us had shoved down
our throats. Red Scare’s been on a roll lately, and this EP continues the streak.
OMNI OF HALOS – Care Free (Lövely Records, llyrecords.com)
Take one part heavy rock, one party
dreamy alternative, toss in a large spoonful of pop sensibilities and a pinch of country twang, and that’s
Omni of Halos, the alternative rock band from Gothenburg, Sweden. This four-song EP represents the
band’s recorded debut, and it’s a sign of great things to come. Growling fuzzed bass and guitars combine
with pop-filled melodies, recorded with the quiet musings of a steel pedal guitar, and painted over with a
lo-fi brush, adding a haziness to the proceedings. The title track is a favorite, with a stronger rhythm and
melodic sense. But I also like “Out of Control,” with its epic nature, rising notes singing out from the steel
pedal guitar and an old school 90s emo sensibility in the bass and vocals. The overall effect is very unique,
like being in the middle of a swirling storm, but there’s a strange sense of order to the chaos. I really like
SEMANTICS – Paint Me Blue (SideOneDummy Records, sideonedummy.com)
This is a very promising
debut LP from Australian indie-pop-punks Semantics. For the most part the music is bouncy and fun, like
the opener, “Carousel.” After an angular dissonant start, the song instantly turns into a fantastic pop punk
tune, up-tempo, with a great melody, some crooning in the vocals, and an insistent rhythm. “Didn’t Wanna
Hurt You,” too, is a driving song, with broader vocals and pounding rhythm. The gang vocals and poppier
melody on the chorus is a nice contrast to the darker sound of the verses. But Semantics can get wistful,
sometimes, too. “This Love Could Kill You” goes for a grungier sound, with heavier guitars alternating
with a lighter sad sounding song, and an alt-rock melody. “Lighter Grow” goes deeper into dreamy ballad
territory. And the appropriately titled “Sad Songs” is a quiet acoustic track, with passionate vocals. The
album seems to be reasonably split between pop punk and introspective indie, and keeping things varied is
always a key to success. Like I said, this is a very promising debut. Keep an eye out for this band.
STATE DRUGS – Explosions on the Radio (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings,
State Drugs follow up their 2021 LP, “Live, Laugh, Love,” with a new
five-song EP. The band is the project of former hardcore musician Chris Kuhn, who records and plays
under the State Drugs moniker with a rotating cast of friends. The resulting music is deeply rooted in 90s
alternative rock and indie music, with a bit of punk sensibility. The five songs are buzzy and breezy, with a
wistful emotional sensibility. I love the opening track, “Don’t Be Afraid,” which has a warm feeling
courtesy of the subdued electric organ, a driving rhythm, and tense, passionate vocals. “On the Radio” is
another buoyant song, relaxed and easy. I like the tension in the lead guitar toward the end of the song,
when it sounds like a train blowing its whistle is driving right through the tune, though the brief guitar solos
feel a bit thin. Though “The Twelve” is a lonesome sounding ballad, most of the tracks have a more upbeat
hopeful feel. Overall, I like the mix of light pop, buzzy guitars, expressive vocals, and a pop punk heart.
GRADUATION SPEECH – Controlled Burn (jetsam-flotsam.com)
Kevin Day, front man for New Jersey’s Aspiga, also records solo material under the Graduation Speech moniker. “Controlled Burn” is Day’s latest release since last year’s “Private Anxieties” EP. This outing sees Day stripping things back, playing songs that feel more somber and introspective. Where the previous EP featured a full band and upbeat songs, “Controlled Burn” is more acoustic, more melancholy, and more reflective. Acoustic guitar and piano are the primary instruments, with occasional electric guitar. Even with the minimal instrumentation, the songs pack an emotional punch. And as much as I enjoyed the full-band version of Graduation Speech, I think I like this simpler version better. The piano, particularly, gives the songs a pensive feel. My favorite song of the EP has to be “Climb,” which opens the EP. The tentative nature of the melody at the opening is stunning. Even as the song speaks of failure, if offers encouragement: “You can climb your way out of this / I believe in you, I believe in me.” We all could use this sort of encouragement from time to time.
MOONRAKER – The Forest (tinydragonmusic.bandcamp.com/bypolarrecords.com)
Hailing from Santa Clarita, California, just north of LA, Moonraker play huge epic pop punk, with driving rhythms and thick arrangements. Massive backing vocals add to the density, and dueling lead vocals often create variety in the textures. There are creative touches, too, in intros and outros of some of the songs, such as the orchestra tuning up at the start of “Incendium,” the opening track, along with an audio clip about the lies exclusionary people tell us. I love the intro and outro on “Fogdancing.” The track starts with a music box playing a lovely little ditty, and it’s a lost opportunity that the band didn’t incorporate it into the song. The ending, as the punk rock fades, is the sound of a jazz quartet in a hazy nightclub – and this time they do it right, recapitulating the song’s melody. Trumpet, piano, upright bass and drums play it as a lazy ballad, while club patrons have conversations in the background. It’s interrupted by the sound of smashing glass and a car starting – a theft? In between these bookends is a hard driving dark punk song with just enough pop melody and lyrics about living a life of uncertainty. “Autumn,” too, starts out quietly, with pretty violins and subtle vocals, before the full band explodes into a speedy skate punk frenzy. “Vanishing Act” is notable as a great crunchy song, faster and louder, with gritty hardcore influence, but still grounded in a melodic sensibility. And I really enjoy the more relaxed lope of “Soot,” which closes the LP. The tempo may be at less of a breakneck pace, but the song is every bit as crackling as the rest of the album. Solid effort here.
PULLEY – The Golden Life (SBAM Records, sbam-rocks.us)
Everyone who listened to punk rock in the 90s knows Pulley. The band is the epitome of the melodic punk rock of the era, and unlike so many contemporaries, they never got overly bombastic. They were also notable for the day job of lead vocalist Scott Radinsky, who was a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. While active all along, the band had a large gap in studio recordings, between 2008 and 2016. They’re now signed to SBAM, and put out an EP last year, and are back with their first full-length of new music since their 2016 release. One of the great things about Pulley is their focus on melody and arrangements. Not satisfied with sounding like so many other bands, they have some really creative sounds, with unique arrangements and melodies. Right from the start, “Repeat Offender” gives us soaring backing vocals that act as a clarion call and play against the jangly pop of the verses. Listen to the complexity in the arrangement of “You’ll Be Lonely Someday,” and you’ll hear chord progressions that are more interesting than typical melodic hardcore and punk. These touches make Pulley really stand out from the crowd. “Align the Planets” is a favorite song, starting out as a quiet acoustic song, just guitar and vocals. When the full band comes in it’s with a blend of Latin, surf, and 90s punk, a pretty killer sound. The chorus gets big and wistful, too. On their darker songs they reflect the 90s Epitaph sound – they were on that storied label, after all. But even then, melody and arrangement are all-important. A good example of this is “The Golden Life,” which has a strong 90s/Bad Religion vibe, but even then Pulley do things with the song that make it different enough that it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of so many bands trying to get that sound. Pulley does it again!
SAY SUE ME – The Last Thing Left (Damnably Records, linktr.ee/damnably)
One doesn’t expect catchy indie bands to be coming from Asia, but here we are. Say Sue Me hail from Busan, South Korea, and apparently they’ve been around for quite awhile, having released two previous LPs and a plethora of singles and EPs. Most of their releases have been with Damnably, a small London based indie label, but a couple of early releases came out on major label Warner Music. After a subdued instrumental opening, the album features lovely and catchy indie pop music. “Around You,” which was a lead single from the album, is bouncy, breezy, and fun. It’s got a skip in its step, with an infectious feeling of elation, like walking on air. Easy pop tunes abound on the album, like “Still Here,” “We Look Alike,” and the ethereal “To Dream.” They’re exquisite and delightful, especially “To Dream.” It’s lush and gorgeous, combining a delicate touch in the vocals and guitars and a thick full sound. “Photo of You” is a ballad with a retro 60s girl group feel, while the other ballad, “Now I Say,” is acoustic, quiet, and introspective sounding. “No Real Place” takes the best aspects of both types of songs and mixes them to create something that’s lush and dreamy, but bouncy and poppy at the same time. It’s a favorite of the LP. If you’re a fan of indie pop, I strongly recommend this.
JOEL TYLER WALL – F.I.T.H. (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
This is a little off the beaten path for Kool Kat Musik, a label that focuses on pop and power pop records. Joel Tyler Wall plays music that, I suppose, falls into that camp, melodically, but the arrangements are thick and heavy, gritty and distortion-filled. It’s like if pop songs were played by grunge bands on acid. It’s a pretty unique sound, and I have to say, it’s really effective. Wall plays all the instruments and handled all the production himself, quite a difficult time consuming set of tasks. But I think it was worth the effort, because this is a great sounding record. “No Job Nose Bleed” is the opening track, and I can hear what would normally be a sparkly pop tune, but it’s been deconstructed by rough and raspy distortion. Some songs have a cool bass drone that reminds me a bit of Silver Apples, the 60s experimental electronic rock band that was way ahead of its time. “Stranger” is one of these, yet the melody is more akin to 60s pop. “Rescue” is another, and though it’s got a lighter pop melody over the bass, it’s got a trippy retro psychedelic sound. “My Dream” is aptly titled, as behind the noisy distortion and overdriven guitars and bass is a dreamy psychedelic melody. “Problems” is darker garage surf-punk, with 80s no wave vocals, a cool mix. Several of the tracks have a psych bent, but none more than the closing track, which is also the title track. Standing for “Fucked in the Head,” and named for a middle school punk band from Wall’s youth, this song is noisier, punker, and more psychedelic than all the others put together. Vocals are multi-tracked, eerie, and buried in the mix, giving the song the sound of an acid trip. This is one of the more unique records I’ve come across in awhile, and it’s recommended.
THE RUMJACKS / FLATFOOT 56 – Split EP (therumjacks.com/the-rumjacks-flatfoot-56)
Hot on the heels of their recent EP, “Brass for Gold,” Celtic punks The Rumjacks are back, this time sharing the stage (literally – the two bands are touring together) with Chicago’s Celtic punks, Flatfoot 56. Each band contributes three tracks, and though they both play in the same general genre, they have very different sounds. The Rumjacks have more traditional sounds of Irish melodies mixed with raucous pub-punk. The opening track, “Whitecaps,” is a dark song that’s heavy on traditional sounding folk melody but a little lighter on the traditional instrument. They make up for it on “Fifth Ward Firestorm,” a very Irish sounding song, complete with penny whistle on the chorus. Their third song is a loping tune, “What Was Your Name in the States,” a song with a party atmosphere, lyrics referring to people changing their names to hide past transgressions. As enjoyable as The Rumjacks songs are, the real revelation here is Flatfoot 56. Coming from Chicago, they have a pretty solid Chicago pop punk sound, with a big wall of gritty guitars, augmented with Celtic instruments. I love “Mud,” with its striding epic feel; it’s my favorite song of the EP. While “Mud” uses banjo,” “Sorry” has the sound of an Arrivals song played with bagpipes in the arrangement. Did I say “Mud” was my favorite? Sorry, it has to be “Sorry.” “Trouble” closes the EP, and it’s a more loping track, still solid pop punk, but the Irish instruments add a cool effect. I hear bagpipes and I think mandolin on this one. Really makes me wish this tour was coming to the west coast, because I’d love to see these bands live. Recommended.
THE DROWNS – Lunatics (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)
The Drowns have been having a good time with genre bending records lately. The band that made their bones with a couple of solid street punk albums have been rocking out on recent singles and EPs, and this newest EP shows they’re still having a blast. The six songs on “Lunatics” are joyful and moving, literally and figuratively. “Live Like Yer Dyin” opens the EP with a 50s rock’n’roll jam, raucous guitars, keys, drums, bass, and vocals over a blues chord progression played like a speedy punk rock tune. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and the sentiment in the lyrics is something we should all heed: live life to its fullest every day. Another rocker is “She’s The Knife,” continuing the band’s exploration of the world of classic rock. I like the moving “Look What We’ve Become,” a song that starts out with acoustic guitar and Rev’s gritty vocals. As the song evolves, more and more of the band joins in, as Rev sings about the strife and division that have torn our country apart. Two of the tracks, “Lunatics” and “Tokyo Red Alert,” are poppier, yet still have a street punk quality to them, like some of the great pub punk of the 80s out of the UK. But I think it’s “The Working Dead” that I love the most on this EP. This is an Andy Wylie jam, and it mixes power pop and pop punk in perfect proportions, topping it with clean clear vocals about the daily grind of thankless work. This one reminds me of bands like Odd Robot and even The Smoking Popes, a bit. If you think music should be fun, you should be listening to The Drowns and pick up this EP.
NIGHT COURT – Nervous Birds Too (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)
Hot on the heels of “Nervous Birds One” which came out a mere few months ago (check further down this column for my review), this newish band is back with the second installment from their recording session. Apparently, after recording too many songs that were all keepers, they made the decision to split them between two LPs. Canadians Night Court play music that blends power pop, garage, indie, and just a dash of punk to create music that’s very listenable and enjoyable. But listen carefully, because the thirteen tracks blow by in a mere twenty minutes, each song flying by in an average of a minute and a half. These songs are certainly gems deserving of your attention. There isn’t a bad track here, but a few are notable standouts. “Shitty Confidential” is heavier on the garage side, but has a great pop melody. I love the swirly sounds of “Titanic,” and “Brighten the Corner” is a slower, less raucous track, but is an absolute favorite. It’s the longest track, too, at two and three quarter minutes, but the melancholy loping feel and epic shining guitars are irresistible. “Surfin Iona” has a B-52s vibe, in the melody and rhythm, and especially the vocals, though it’s not a new wave track. The shortest track, clocking in at a mere 49 seconds, “sticksrtrees,” is outsized bouncy indie pop fun. This album is an unexpected surprise of the best kind.
PARADE OF HORRIBLES – Listen In (paradeofhorribles.bandcamp.com)
Parade of Horribles is a two piece, featuring Jason York on bass and vocals and Chris Mazzola on drums. Their music is rooted in skatepunk and hardcore, but they inject a dose of funk to create a hardcore-punk-funk sort of hybrid. The music is manic and intense, and the growling bass has a full enough sound and gives the proceedings an almost industrial air. There’s even a strong beat, good enough to dance to, if that’s your thing. The genre-spanning music keeps things lively and interesting for those who listen to music with their heads, while the intensity will keep the adrenaline flowing for you pit junkies. “Keep It Going” is a track that goes through multiple changes over its two and a quarter minutes. Starting with a jazzy swirling bass, it soon turns into raging hardcore alternating with a spoken word art-punk thing, vocals switching between talking and shouting intensely. There’s a smooth jazz break, too, which threw me for a loop. The lyrics seem to reference friends working together toward a goal, but there’s a falling out. The others “keep it going,” though, and remain hopeful of the return of missing comrades. This may be a reference to the Punk Rock Food Drive, an annual fundraising program that Parade of Horribles runs each year. It’s not just a fundraiser show – they work with local restaurants to donate a portion of their proceed on certain days, and recruit a plethora of local vendors to sell merch in a fair-like atmosphere that the actual show is. It all raises money to help those in the community who need a hand acquiring food for their families. I love the funky bass lines in “Doing the Work,” an otherwise gritty song about life in the corporate grind. “I got spreadsheets to track my spreadsheets / A thousand things left to do / I’m gonna craft the most beautiful email / To craftily be ignored by you,” the song declares. The title track is an intense hardcore rager about the isolating influence of social media addiction. “Holding Pattern” mixes grinding growling bass with jazzed up funk via syncopated phrasing. But this one is likely the heaviest and hardest hitting track of the EP. The lyrics appear to speak to being paralyzed, waiting for the “perfect moment” for something, yet ending up going nowhere. The EP ends with “Better Without You,” a song with mathish rhythm changes, power-laden verses, and a poppy chorus. Parade of Horribles call themselves “experimental, and I can see why they might say that. They do defy genre categorization, so let’s just agree to call it good music.
TONY JAY – Hey There Flower (Mt.St.Mtn., www.mtstmtn.com)
Upon listening to the first track, “The Rain Drops,” I was certain I was in for a strange experimental sonic journey. The track is eerie and mysterious, loaded with trepidation and uncertainty. And, in some ways, this is such an exploration, but the remainder of the album is less eerie, but more melancholy. This is lo-fi pop, and it has an air of hazy dreaminess about it. Breathy vocals add to the feeling of unreality, that you’re visiting someone’s dreams. The persistent hiss in the recordings adds, rather than detracts, from the songs, especially on the gorgeous “September Skies.” A simple guitar and female vocals provide the feel of girl group songs of the 60s, but slowed down and stripped back. The dark emotions of those sorts of pop tunes are brought into clear focus through the haze of time. That’s a common theme through these songs; it’s like listening to someone’s misty thoughts, at twilight, with the fog rolling in. These songs would be right at home in a David Lynch/Twin Peaks world. The title track is the most upbeat, but even that track, loaded with reverb, has an otherworldly feel. Listening to this may warp your sense of reality. I highly recommend it.
THE WILFUL BOYS – World Ward Word Sword (Big Neck Records, bigneckrecords.com)
When I began listening to the first track of this third LP from The Wilful Boys, I though I was in for some noisy metallic grinding shit. Thankfully, I was wrong. Though The Wilful Boys do focus on noise, this is the noise rock of the 90s. Through the chaos and insanity, there’s melody and order, too (once you get past the opening track). The lead single, “A Watched Pot,” mixes 90s noise and 70s hard rock. It’s got the blood and guts of hard rock and the distortion, angularity, and vocals of the 90s. This track immediately got my attention, no longer dismissing this record. “Classic Action” rages with NOMEANSNO funk-bass intensity, but has more of a hardcore intent, even as the guitars ring out. Even more hardcore is “Silly Season,” with raging guitars and shouted vocals, but it still has a melodic sense. “Heaven” is darker than one might expect from a song with that title; feedback and dissonance clash with the melodic intent, and vocals teeter between blasé and ireful. Guitars scream and jab intently.” Horrible Way” is not horrible at all. It uses repetitive lines effectively and regularly injects massive angularity played heavily. Imagine early Black Sabbath as a math-noise band (!). The bridge gets chaotic, and the outro speeds up like an out of control locomotive about to run off the rails. If you’re a fan of hard driving rock and 90s noise, get on this. It’s one of the tastier releases I’ve heard lately.
CHUCK YOAKUM – Paisley Garden Project (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
Paisley was a popular pattern for clothing in the 1960s, with its psychedelic style. It went with the love and flowers pop music of the time, which often had hints of mod and psych. Chuck Yoakum does more than pay homage to that era, he dives in and makes himself at home in it with this LP. It’s chock full of the sort of music that was all the rave back then, especially in England. Vocals are subdued, while the music is sweet and moody at the same time. Think about the earliest Pink Floyd albums, loaded with psychedelic pop, but then smooth out the rough Syd Barrett edges and you get an idea. One of the really nice touches on this album is the use of orchestral-like arrangements, including lush strings, and even piccolo trumpet here and there. “The Sky Is Blue Hello Good Morning On With The Show” is a favorite, for its clever arrangements, including the aforementioned instruments, plus piano and harmonica, harpsichord, French horns, and even a rooster! The track, which is really three or four songs in one, has a lilt to it, a bounce reminiscent of Sgt. Pepper era Beatles. “How To Do It” has a familiar 60s pop liveliness to it, feeling almost theatrical with its insistent beat provided by the piano. “Let It Go” blends the orchestral pop of the mod era with sitar and back-masking of the psychedelic era, to create a track that’s both freaky and poppy. Juxtaposing the two genres of the era is quite a clever thing to do. This is an interesting journey into our collective musical past.
BRING ON THE STORM / CALL IT A DAY – Through The Distance (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)
This new split, uh, I guess I’ll call it a full-length EP, contains four songs from each of two bands, Canada’s Bring on the Storm and France’s Call It a Day. So, each contributes an EP’s worth of material to make up a full-length release. Both bands play what would loosely fall into the skate punk camp, but the two approach it from different directions. Call It a Day focuses on the speedy melodic hardcore end of the spectrum, while Bring on the Storm focuses more on metallic flourish; their songs are played at a more moderate tempo, and they’re more melodic and way more metallic. Both bands acquit themselves well, though I prefer Call It a Day’s tracks, as being more punk. Bring on the Storm is more metal and less punk, sounding like they’re trying to be a big arena band (or what we used to call a “hair band”), and it’s just not my thing. Metal fans will likely disagree, and may enjoy it. Skate punk fans will enjoy both bands.
DEAF LINGO – Lingonberry (Lövely Records, llyrecords.com)
As I began listening to the “Intro” track, I thought to myself, “oh, this is going to be some weird wanky experimental stuff on guitars.” But thankfully it was just an intro, because BAM! The band launches into “Summertime,” and it’s like listening to a less tense version of Radioactivity or Marked Men, and mixed with loping pop punk. This stuff is fantastic! “Sleeping” mixes the sound of those Denton bands with plain old rock and roll, and includes some cool hard metallic bits and surf guitar jabs. It’s a mélange of genre bending that’s pretty damned cool. “Push It” is ace garage punk with loads of power and infused with musical tension. As the album evolves, the songs inject more pop goodness and strip away only a tiny bit of the power. “Friends” is a great bouncy pop punk track that still has a sharp edge, and “Antisocial” slows things down a bit without losing any of the other strengths. It even has some jangle and whoa-ohs in the backing vocals. “Reception” has an amazing post-hardcore feel, completely different from the other tracks. “Cars and Houses” and “Lingonberry” are indie rock bangers. This album is like having three or four EPs from different bands that all feature the same members. There’s variety and there’s consistency of quality. Where is this band from? Are they Texas compatriots of the Denton crowd? Nope. They’re from one of the world’s fashion capitals, Milan. Yes, Deaf Lingo is an Italian band. And this album is a candidate for my Best of 2022 list.
DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN – The Way You Shatter (Silver Girl Records, www.silvergirl.com)
I last reviewed music from Dewey Defeats Truman way back in 2000, when their sole full-length LP was released. The band was mainly active in the early 2000s, but have recently come out of hibernation, releasing a 7” in 2018 and a new five-song EP now. I caught them live at the Casbah, very recently, opening for June of 44, and I really enjoyed their set. Much of their set came from this new EP, the songs of which fall solidly into the indie rock camp. The band is only a three-piece (Mark MacBride on vocals and guitar, James Reader on bass and vocals, and Scott Frazier on drums), but their sound is a lot thicker and richer than you might think. The songs have a wonderful mix of indie pop jangle and more introspective indie-emo that really hits the sweet spot. The songs are emotive without being overly emotional; vocals ring out rather than feel strained, and instrumentals are evocative without feeling bombastic. I can hear a lot of Jawbox/J Robbins influence in a number of the songs, which makes it even better (since I’m a big Jawbox fan). One of my favorite tracks of the new EP is “Slow Reaction,” which opens the EP. It’s the perfect embodiment of the Dewey Defeats Truman sound, and I hear plenty of Jawbox influence here. The song has a sort of broad post-emo sound, but tempered with the jangly pop guitars. “The Tower,” especially, has a late era Jawbox sound, especially in the vocals. When they get to the chorus and its vocal layering, the influence is undeniable. Between these two songs we get the straightforward indie-rock of “Serpent’s Kiss,” with a great rumbling and rolling bass and more than a hint of pop bounce, the edgier “Less Than One,” with grittier guitar sound and an almost power pop melodic line, and “Subtract Yourself,” another straightforward indie rock tune, but with gliding vocals, The digital release includes two bonus tracks, “Better During” and “Shots Taken.” The former has a more rocking vibe (within the confines of the band’s genre), but with thick and dreamy guitars, while the latter is a big, broad, epic track, the closest you’ll get to a ballad. I was very pleasantly surprised to see Dewey Defeats Truman last week at the Casbah, and even more pleasantly surprised that they’re releasing new music. Recommended.
MARKET – The Consistent Brutal Bullshit Gong (Western Vinyl, westernvinyl.com)
Market’s latest LP is their first with Western Vinyl. The Brooklyn band, spearheaded by songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Nate Mendelsohn, primarily gives us relaxed, understated indie. But there’s more going on here under the surface, when you listen closely. Lyrics touch on topics of growing up and learning to be an independent adult, the difficulties we encounter and the mistakes we make along the way, and how we often end up being just like our parents, despite our attempts otherwise. “Scar,” one of the lead singles, includes country rhythms, but also explores dreaminess and the avant-garde. The song has a unique arrangement, interjected sound effects, start-stop performance, chaotic noise, and juxtapositions smooth gliding vocals against the aforementioned mash-up. It’s so different from anything else out there, and is a favorite just because of the oddness. “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” has less to do with the historic battles and more to do with the battles we fight with our friends and ourselves. “When am I gonna stop writing songs about being an asshole to my friends / and just start never being an asshole to them?” the song asks. At nearly six minutes, it’s the longest song of the album, but it’s also the prettiest and most introspective. The guitar line is vey simple and subdued, as are the vocals, and you can hear the anxiety and regret. I especially love the ending of the song, when a chorus of woodwinds join in, giving the whole thing a nostalgic feel, a yearning for simpler times before life got shitty. I enjoy the math-like meter shifts of “I Would Do That,” a song with off-kilter guitar jangle and those easy vocals singing about difficulties dealing with change, including in relationships, and how it’s hard to act differently than what we’re used to, even in the face of different circumstances. The music may (mostly) be relaxed and restrained, but the lyrics are full of turmoil and doubt. This is a really nice record.
PERSHAGEN – Hilma (Lövely Records, llyrecords.com)
The press materials that came with this release mentions “dreamy and cinematic instrumental music,” where “psychedelic rock intertwines with post-rock, and Scandinavian gloominess melts into colorful moments of bliss.” This is a pretty darn accurate description of the third full-length LP from the Swedish quartet. The music is lush and meandering, presenting sonic landscapes. In my mind’s ear, the opening track, “Klangskog,” is a winding river, a pastoral scene with tall grass blowing in the wind and butterflies and bees floating around the flowers. In contrast, the grittier “Hilma” provides a soundtrack to a sunny day in a bustling city. There are grungy guitars playing off other guitars that ring out, clear as a bell. It’s like the sun reflecting off the windows of the skyscrapers, compared to the grime concealed in the shadows below. Steel pedal guitar sings out the silent sadness of the people. At least this is what I envision when I close my eyes, listening to these tracks. I really love the interwoven folk melodies in “La°ngt bort na¨ra,” which translates to “Far Away Near” and in “Alla minns den sista ga°ngen,” which means “Everyone Remembers the Last Time.” Sometimes Pershage gets into jam territory, such as on “Karelia,” which is where the psychedelic descriptor comes in. Have you ever heard steel pedal guitar in a psychedelic jam? You will here! I think my favorite track may be “Ofog i dja¨vulens sa¨llskap” (Insult in the Company of the Devil). It reminds me of the sort of electronic post-industrial music made by Future Sounds of London back in the day. There’s some minimalist repeating lines and rhythms and a thick layering of sounds from guitar, bass, drums, and synths. I don’t normally go in for instrumental rock music, but this stuff is very evocative, and I like it.
BLEEDING HEARTS – Riches To Rags (Bar None Records, www.bar-none.com)
Some love Record Store Day, others hate it. What began as a way to promote independent record stores in the days of waning vinyl sales has been usurped by major labels and chain stores as a way to rake in money from limited colored vinyl reissues of records that already had seen sales in the millions years ago. But, for those faithful adherents, there are still real gems to be found from indie bands and labels, music that was lost or forgotten or never saw the light of day. Such is the case with Bleeding Hearts, a Minneapolis band that time has forgotten. The band included Replacements co-founder Bob Stinson, and it was the last band he played in before his untimely death in 1995. The band was the idea of singer/guitarist Mike Leonard, and also featured drummer Bob Herbers and bassist Rob Robello, with Stinson filling out the band. “Riches To Rags” was recorded in 1993, but shortly after, the band broke up amidst rancor, and the recordings sat unreleased for nearly 30 years. The 41-minute album features thirteen tracks of power pop, poppy alternative rock, and good time rock and roll. Though not everything here is to my taste, it’s all energetic stuff. One favorite is the title track, which opens the LP. It’s very much a nod to power pop of the previous decade, with gritty guitars playing a bouncy melody. I enjoy, too, the breezy “100 Ways,” that uses an acoustic and electric mix to create an easy feel while still remaining lively. “Gone” is one of the edgier, quicker-paced tunes, with a simpler garage-punk feel. “Happy Yet” blends garage-punk, power pop, and just a hint of twang, to create a fun track. “Know It All” lopes along with a power-pop/indie rock mix that’s easy on the ears. And “Right As Rain” is, perhaps, the favorite of all, with the strongest indie sound of the album. The melody is nice and poppy, while the guitars jangle and growl in just the right way. Some of the tracks that didn’t quite do it for me include the Rolling Stones influenced “Imagination,” and the hard blues-rock “What Do You Want?” The latter uses hard rock licks and harmonica. The short-lived band may have broken up due to personal clashes, but it’s clear from these recordings that they were having a lot of fun playing these songs. You probably will have a lot of fun listening to them.
JEANINES – Don’t Wait for a Sign (Slumberland Records, www.slumberlandrecords.com)
Slumberland brought us Jeanines’ debut LP back in 2019, before the pandemic changed the world. Now they’re back with Jeanines’ sophomore effort. Just like the debut, words like “gorgeous” and “lovely” don’t do it justice. This is simple, jangly indie pop, played by the duo of Alicia Jeanine and Jed Smith. Since the debut, the pair have become separated geographically and via the isolation of the pandemic. As a result, the music has a more melancholy feel, even as the guitars jangle in an effort to put on a happy face. Alicia’s vocals feel even more influenced by the singers of the 60s and 70s folk music movement, like Buffy Sainte-Marie and Joni Mitchell. There’s a psych-folk feel to the songs, a haziness that overlays the music. “Through The Vines” is a good example of the melancholy feel; it’s a song of romantic troubles and dichotomous feelings. “I want you, I want you all the time, all the time, even through the heartbreak,” Jeanine sings. The guitars jangle and the multi-tracked vocals harmonized with mixed feelings. You can hear the happiness and the sadness in the same song. One of the happier sounding songs is “Gotta Go.” It ha a quicker tempo and big 60s R&B girl group vocals on the chorus. I really love the opening track, “That’s OK,” with its bouncy feel, gorgeous harmonized vocals, and hopeful lyrics. “If you don’t know by now, that’s OK, that’s OK / if you can just hang on another day, another day / You may think you’re not growing / But a part of it’s not knowing / One day it’ll all start showing its face / You’ll find your way / You’ll find a way / You’ll find your way someday.” The song is about feeling uncertain about life and the future, but offers the reassurance that things will work out. It sort of goes with the encouragement of the album title: don’t wait for a sign. Go make it happen. Another encouraging song follows immediately, with “Any Day Now.” This one has a strong psych-folk influence, particularly in those beautiful vocals. One thing to note is how short these songs all are. There are thirteen tracks in a mere 21 minutes, something I would expect out of a hardcore punk band, but hardly from an indie pop band. I like these songs so much that I wish they were a bit longer that Beauty doesn’t have to be rich and lush; simple and stripped down can be so wonderful, and so it is here.
OV STARS – Tuesdays (ovstars.bandcamp.com)
Best known as the former Psychic TV bassist, Alice Genese has teamed up with South African ex-pat musician Shaune Pony Heath to form Ov Stars, and “Tuesdays” is the duo’s debut EP. Don’t expect anything approaching the sounds of PTV, though, as Ov Stars is their own thing, with a very different sound. The music is much more relaxed, with a strong folk and singer-songwriter vibe. There are hints of Americana twang, and steel guitar shows up in some of the arrangements, but the arrangements are much richer than that description would imply. The tracks are both lush and delicate, a balancing act that should be credited to Jeff Berner, another alumnus of Psychic TV, who produced, engineered, and mixed the EP. Four of the five tracks are emotion-laden ballads, and if you aren’t moved by these songs you have no heart or soul. And even the one that isn’t, the track which shares its name with the band’s. is moving. It starts as a folksy track, with jangly plucked guitar and subtle percussion. Genese’s voice is made for singing songs like this, with just the right mix of pain and hope. As the song evolves, more instruments join in, including full drums, bass, and organ, and the track goes from downcast to uplifting, with a lush 80s inspired arrangement. I adore “Crying Time,” a track that drips with desperate passion. The angst carries over from Heath’s vocals into the guitar tone, and you can feel the pain and hurt through the speakers. The song tells the story of lost love, and the chorus makes it plain: “I can’t hold you anymore / Without losing my mind / Love don’t live here anymore / Now it’s just the crying time.” The EP closes with the wistful “Better Things,” a song that seems to be saying that, while it’s nice to remember the good times of the past, we shouldn’t live there because you can’t go back, you can only move forward. What a beautiful, moving EP.
THE SLACKERS – Don't Let The Sunlight Fool Ya (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)
After teasing us with singles over the past year or so, The Slackers have finally released a new full-length LP, their first in seven years. The Slackers focus mainly on rock steady and reggae beats, but they branch out quite a lot at times, making this album varied. That’s always a great thing, because the songs hold your interest when they aren’t all the same. In this new album there’s a nice dose of R&B in some of the songs, none more than “Sleep Outside,” the melancholy track about homelessness. Providing the LP’s title, the chorus pleads, “Don’t let the sunlight fool ya / It’s cold outside.” It speaks to the difficulties of life on the street, and in particular the mental health issues facing many of the unhoused. It still has the reggae beat and guitar, but the soulfulness makes it the most different and most interesting track of the LP. Another notable track is “They Are Losing;” it’s a bluesy track with a samba beat and vocals that rival Tom Waits for sheer amount of gravel. The lyrics are about class struggle, and how the old rich guys in suits are resorting to desperate measures because they know they’re on the losing side of history. I love the jazzy tenor sax solo and the dark feel of this song. I really enjoy “Shameboy,” which blends rock steady and 60s pop; imagine the Beatles playing rock steady and you get the idea. “Statehouse” is a more traditional reggae sort of tune for the Slackers, but it’s the most political of the album. It references the removal of Confederate memorials and flags from statehouses in southern states, and it even references the January 6th insurrection. “Boogie Nowhere” is a mash-up of boogie and rock steady, a unique combination. And “Time Won’t Set You Free” closes the album with reggae mixed with a 70s psychedelic sound in the vocals. Of course, the album also contains the previously released and excellent rock steady single, “Nobody’s Listening,” as well as the fun “Windowland.” I don’t regularly listen to this sort of music, but The Slackers’ penchant for genre cocktails is a lot of fun.
FLEXURHEAD II – 2 Song Demo (flexurhead2.bandcamp.com)
If you can’t tell from the title, this is a two-song demo, and it was recorded on the spur of the moment. Felix Reyes (Lifes Halt. Big Crux, Please Inform The Captain This Is A Hijacking, and more) was in Los Angeles for a funeral, and visited with Daryl Gussin (Spokenest, God Equals Genocide, Ah Fuck, and Razorcake Magazine guy) on a Saturday night. This led to drinking and an idea to grab a couple acoustic guitars and head to Razorcake’s podcast studio and make some music. The end result was called “Flexurhead” mainly for the resemblance to mid ‘80s DC Revolution Summer music, the sort that came out of Dischord Records and bands like One Last Wish, Red Emma, Rites of Spring, etc. Except it’s acoustic. The first song is “Impulso,” and is sung in both Spanish and English. It has some great intricate lead guitar work, and a feel that starts out light and gliding, and gets more emphatic as the song evolves. The second track, “Distance,” is somewhat simpler, but has an even stronger DC sound, and if I had to pick a favorite of the pair, this would be it. This era of the Dischord sound has long been at the top of my list of favored music, so I’m a sucker for this. I offer the suggestion that Felix and Daryl recruit a couple more people, write some more songs, and record an EP in a real studio.
MEAN JEANS – Hits From The Bog (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)
It’s party time, the Mean Jeans are here! Hits From The Bog (where’s that missing ‘n’??) is a surprise digital release that contains three unreleased songs from the “Tight New Dimension” LP, Mean Jeans’ Fat Wreck debut. Of course you already know what to expect from these miscreants. I don’t know why these songs got left off the album, because they all rock. My favorite is probably the opener, the pop-filled “Mind Fulla Slime.” It’s got some more interesting chord changes tossed in here and there to give it a slightly different sound, and it has great use of dynamic changes and competing lead and backing vocals. It’s just plain good time fun. “My Body is a Wasteland” is the most standard Ramones-core track of the three. And the ending track, “Twistin off a Cliff,” is bubblegum punk all set for party time. Which, if you know the Mean Jeans, is all the time! So get ready to party and download this digital EP!
TINY BLUE GHOST – The Underneath (Count Your Lucky Stars, www.cylsrecords.com)
It’s been three years since Tiny Blue Ghost released anything, so here they are with a new five-song EP. They can’t be pinned down to a single genre, but the music is lush and dreamy, with glimmering synths and meandering bass. Vocals remind me of torch song singers of yore, singing with passion and a haunting sense of loss. The opening track, “We Intertwined,” is mostly instrumental with just a short vocal section, and it has an intensely spiritual feel. It’s in 3-4 waltz time, starts quietly with just guitars, and gets bigger and bigger. In some ways it reminds me of a Christmas song. “Stone Balloon” starts out with a funky bass and drumbeat, but the entire character of the song changes when the synths and vocals come in. The synths ring out like bells, while the vocals sensually rise and fall. “In Blind Sight” is notably the edgiest track of the EP, with an almost punk like feel in the spoken lyrics and gritty guitars. It still has a rich backdrop of synths, but it’s the lone track of the EP that lacks a dreamy quality. This is beautiful stuff.
WARREN FRANKLIN – Second April (Count Your Lucky Stars, www.cylsrecords.com)
Formerly known as Warren Franklin and the Founding Fathers, they’ve dropped the cumbersome part of that moniker. The band retains its indie sound, but it’s got a lovely lightness to it now. Franklin refers to it as acoustic layering, though the band is still mostly electric. There is some acoustic guitar and piano, but it’s the layering of these sounds I think he’s referring to. Though layering like this would normally make music feel heavier and ponderous, the four songs here are airy, with plenty of room to breathe. Even as the instrumentals have gotten lighter, they’ve also gotten lusher, while Franklin’s vocals are as emotionally intense as ever. The music seems to glide, and it’s quite soothing and relaxing to listen to. It’s only a four-song EP, and I sure could have used more of these songs. It’s a welcome change from a lot of the harder heavier stuff I’ve been listening to lately.
BROKEN HEARTS ARE BLUE – Dark Whimsy and Soft Surrealism (Council Records, councilrecords.com)
We’ve seen lots of pandemic lockdown recordings come out over the past couple of years. Most of them have been lo-fi solo bedroom recordings, but a few have been more professional sounding, with quality recordings being passed back and forth between band members. “Dark Whimsy and Soft Surrealism” is in the latter category. The band that had formed in 1995, released one LP (1997’s “The Truth About Love”), and called it quits all found themselves in the same place in 2018, and decided to record some of the old songs that had never been committed to tape. They wrote a new song, too, and an EP resulted. They had plans to keep things going in 2020, and the pandemic hit. With all plans scuttled, the group decided to spend the time writing, recording, and sending music files back and forth. “Dark Whimsy and Soft Surrealism,” the resulting LP, definitely has a 90s post punk indie feel. It’s mostly big and expansive alt-rock with moments of intimacy and emotion. One favorite track is the opener, “Sentimental Education.” It takes some influence from power pop and 60s rock, but thoroughly updates those sounds and incorporates them into modern indie. I love the quiet “After the World, the World Remains.” Impassioned vocals sing over solo piano that’s been heavily processed with reverb, giving it a sad, introspective feel. I like, too, the big dreamy feel from the huge guitar sound of “Rohmer in the Anthropocene,” If you’re a fan of 90s post punk and emo-pop, you’ll like this. I like it well enough, but feel it’s a tad too long (at nearly an hour), and I would have liked to hear a little more diversity in the sounds. The tempos and textures are mostly the same on nearly all the songs.
GENTLEMEN ROGUES – Fancy (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)
Two new songs are here from Gentlemen Rogues, the Austin, Texas outfit that do a solid job blending indie rock and power pop. This is their first new music since late 2020 and the record includes one original and one cover. The A-side is the title track, and features booming guitars with both jangle and crunch and a gliding poppy melody. The song is about the difficulties of a relationship with a language barrier and the collision of different cultures. The B-side is a cover of They Might Be Giants’ “I’ve Got a Match.” Gentlemen Rogues eschew the light quirkiness of the original and turn it into a fantastic power pop tune. It’s thicker and richer than the original, and sounds more uplifting. There are moments in both songs that remind me a bit of The Smoking Popes, and the short guitar solo in this cover is one. This is a great new single, but after a series of singles and EPs, when do we get a full length LP?
MARK STEWART – VS (Emergency Hearts, www.emergencyhearts.com)
Yes, that Mark Stewart. Member of The Pop Group, and Mark Stewart and the Maffia, and frequent collaborator with On-U Sound’s Tackhead and Adrian Sherwood, Mark Stewart has a new project he’s calling “VS,” in which he collaborates with various other musicians on each of the tracks. While his early career heavily influenced (some would say created) the post-punk genre, he later became intrigued with electronic and industrial music that began flourishing in the 1980s. This album features Stewart’s collaborations with many luminaries of the electronic and industrial genres, such as Front 242, Consolidated, KK Null, and the late Lee Scratch Perry. If you’re familiar with the genre, you know what to expect. If you’re not, you’re in for a treat! The music is hard-edged and trance-like at the same time. It’s got a strong dance beat, loads of ambient sounds, a ton of samples, all put together. It’s cerebral dance music, sharing the experimental characteristics of experimental industrial and the club beats of electronic dance music. All of the tracks are worthy, and bring back memories from the 80s and 90s, when this music was pretty dominant in the underground dance clubs (and I was playing some of this sort of music on the radio in my DJ days). There are some that I’ll highlight, though, as particularly strong. The opening track is called “Rage of Angels,” and it’s a collaboration with Front 242. It mixes the Wax Trax Records industrial sound with dub and spoken word. It’s chill and exciting at the same time. I really like the angular tones of “Ghost of Love,” in which Stewart collaborates with E Random. The powerful beat contrasts with the use of touch-tones, angular synths, and smooth ambience, with vocals digitally manipulated and chopped up. “Outlaw Empire,” a collaboration with Nun Gun, mixes in a reggae dub beat more than any of the other tracks, and is the most chill of the ten. “New Error,” with KK Null, is one of the most “out there” experimental pieces of the album, yet there’s still a discernable song structure and rhythm. It’s more challenging than the other tracks, and one of my favorites of the album. And, as you might expect, the collaboration with Lee Perry, titled “Lee Skratch Perry,” and mixed by Alpha Adrian Sherwood and Peter Harris, is chill industrial dub. If you, like me, were into this sort of mélange of genres, the mix of experimental and dance music, this new project from Mark Stewart will make you happy.
ONE HIDDEN FRAME – I Am Not Here (Thousand Islands Records, thousandislandsrecords.com)
One Hidden Frame is a punk band from Finland, active for the last 20 years. They play fast, thick, and dark punk rock music, bordering on skate punk. You can clearly hear the band’s main influences in their music, Bad Religion and Propaghandi. If you’re familiar with the music those bands play, you’ll know exactly what to expect. There’s loads of multi-part harmony, a focus on melody, hard-edged aggression, and lots of technical guitar work. If you’re a fan of the style, you’re going to love this LP, because it’s flawlessly executed. The band is tight and powerful and the members clearly know their way around their instruments. “Dry Out” is a particularly strong track, as it’s the speediest, shortest, most hardcore track of the record. “Obstacles” has some emotional pop punk mixed in, and thus feels warmer and less aggressive than many of the tracks. To my ears, though, too many of the tracks sound alike. I’m not a huge fan of the sub-genre, but I know a lot of people are. If you’re one of those, I recommend this record, because the recording is pretty strong.
SIMON LOVE – Love, Sex, and Death etc. (Tapete Records, www.tapeterecords.de)
Lovely light pop music with a flair for the dramatic is the key feature in the dozen tracks in this latest LP from the UK’s Simon Love. The title describes the topical content of the songs, which indeed include love, sex, death, and more. The use of the word “Brit-pop” annoys me; nevertheless, it’s descriptive, but in a retro sort of way. I hear loads of 60s glam-pop influence in this album, especially on tracks like the opener, “Me and You,” which might be the most modern indie sounding of the tracks. There are strong glam-pop references, though, especially in the thick orchestral instrumentation, including use of horns and chimes. “L-O-T-H-A-R-I-O” is one of the “sex” songs, and the arrangement with horns and electric organ evoke the transitory period between pop music of the 40s and the pop music influenced by rock that began being made in the 60s. Speaking of 60s influence, “You’re On Your Own” sounds like something that could have come from an early Bob Dylan album; it’s folksy, political, and sardonic, with plenty of twang and loads of attitude. Dylan’s vocal quality is even somewhat mimicked here. There’s country, too, with “I Will Always Love You Anyway,” featuring both acoustic and steel pedal guitar. Love and indifference are covered in “I Love Everybody in the Whole Wide World,” a light pop track that features electric organ and strings. “I love everybody in the whole wide world, except you” is the refrain in this song that reminds me of AM pop of the 60s or early 70s. And death is covered in songs like the 60s tragedy ballad tune, “The Worst Way to Die.” It evokes all those tunes from back in the day that featured a girl singing about her lost boyfriend who died in a tragic auto accident or something similar. In this case, the worst way to die is “without you by my side.” “Au Revoir My Dude” is a delicate song of farewell, just in case “I die before my time.” It provides wishes and advice to others in the event of an untimely passing, and is touching and humorous. If you have a hankering for 60s glam-pop, check this out.
THE SINGLES – L.O.V.E From the Santa Cruz Archives ’82 – ’85 (Kool Kat Musik, koolkatmusik.com)
I’m not sure why a label would want to collect together forgotten recordings from an obscure band that no one ever heard of, but it’s a good thing that Kool Kat Musik has done so. Of the 18 (!) tracks in this collection, only four of them have ever been officially released before (the four tracks from the band’s 1983 EP, “Play It”). If you’re a fan of classic power pop of the ‘70s and ‘80s, this should be a must have. The four-piece never signed a record deal back in the day, but they did win a battle of the bands that featured 70 entrants. They gigged locally in the Santa Cruz area and sometimes ventured out to San Francisco or LA. And though they only ever released the one EP, they continued to record, thus we have this archive. Guitar jangle, poppy melodies, and multi-part harmonies are the main features of these songs, and there isn’t a stinker in the entire hour plus of music. I hear a little bit of Santa Cruz surf influence in the songs, though they aren’t surf music by a long shot. I have a feeling the tracks are mostly arranged chronologically, because I can hear an evolution in the sound, from more classic early power pop sounds to a more commercial AM radio sound as the set of songs plays. The earliest ones are certainly my favorites. The opening track, “Lookin’ Round For You” begins things with a bang. I love the guitar tone, which reminds me a bit of The Plimouls, while the strong harmonized vocals evoke The Beat in their heyday. I also enjoy the upbeat “Just Another Girl,” with the key changes in its chorus, and the guitar licks in “Same Girl” are choice. “Different Shades of Blue” has an introspective feeling and gorgeous lush harmonies, making it a standout. I like the bass recording; I’m not sure it was intentional, but it sounds sort of like a tuba instead of a bass guitar, and it’s kind of cool. “Upside Down” is still plenty melodic, but gets a heavy dose of garage snot, and is a favorite. The album title comes from one of the tracks, “L.O.V.E. (Spells Trouble),” and it’s got some great power pop guitar licks, cool harmonies, and pretty standard power pop lyrics that revolve around love, love problems, and pining over a girl. I’m guessing “Novel of Love” and “No Wasting Time” comes from the later end of the band’s career, as they eschew power pop goodness for a mix of new wave pop and R&B funk that was popular in the mid eighties. Likewise, I’ll bet “Think It Over” is from the later era, too, with a more lounge-like AM radio tone, with hints of R&B influence. These aren’t bad tracks, but they aren’t my favorites. The collection closes with the bright, raucous, and hopeful tune, “Don’t Give Up.” It’s one that’s sure to get your dancing and jumping for joy. As is the collection, as a whole.
EL NO – Hoodlums (Howdy Mouse Records, elno.bandcamp.com)
Mix up electronic, industrial, and indie grunge-punk into one big pot, and you get El No, a band that started as a collaboration between Nate Farley (Guided By Voices, The Breeders) and Craigo Nichols (Bellringer, Fur Coats). One year to the day after their debut LP, they’re back with their sophomore effort. The interesting musical mix begins with “Speed Condition,” a track that starts out with subtle electronics and deadpan vocals, but soon adds noisy guitars, bass, and drums. The vocals get more emphatic, and the whole vibe of the track is very mechanical. The song veers back and forth between these two polar opposites, quiet and chaotic, but always the feeling of being amongst the machinery. There’s a very 90s vibe throughout the album, with obvious influence from The Jesus Lizard. The use of synths in the midst of such turbulent arrangements is unique and intriguing. The title track is one of note, in three-four waltz time, heavily bass driven with intensely processed pain-filled vocals. “Scrape It” is one of the poppiest songs of the album, but still with a hard 90s edge. The vocals sound pained and whiny, though. “Dead Center Blackout” is another poppy song, and it has a strong garage pop flair. ”Séance” has an eerie, off-kilter vibe; it’s a slower quieter song, ballad-like, but with an ambience of darkness and evil. Well, all of the tracks have an off-centered sense about them. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it doesn’t work as well. An obscure band that I’ll have you look up as a comparison is Octagrape, s late lamented San Diego band that did this whole 90s garage pop rock thing, minus the synths and the quirkiness (and I think they were more effective at it). My favorite song may be “Trash and Ashes,” which has moments of DC post-hardcore mixed with 90s garage and post-punk. As a whole, “Hoodlums” has its moments, some enjoyable, some difficult. But that’s true of life in general.
ELWAY – The Best of All Possible Worlds (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)
Taking the album title from Voltaire’s “Candide,” Elway returns with a brand spanking new LP. And the album does, indeed, seem to represent the best of all possible punk worlds. Some of the songs have an almost orchestral quality, and others span big sing along pop punk to speed skate punk. There are lots of interesting touches, little audio clips inserted here and there, and wonderfully surprising arrangements and riffs. The end of the opening track, “Pangloss,” includes a snippet from the operetta version of “Candide,” written by Leonard Bernstein, in which the chorus sings that this is the best of all possible worlds. But as they sing, the tape slows and the singing distorts, as if to show that, no, this is, in fact, a pretty shitty world and all of the optimism is misplaced. “Maximum Entropy” opens with an audio clip from Tom Lehrer’s, “So Long Mom, I’m Off to Drop the Bomb.” And “Plastic Bottle Service” opens with a clip I couldn’t identify, but it sounds like it comes from some opera or musical. That opening track starts out solemnly, lyrics referencing death and loss, but that one would trade everything to be back in this life and this time. The title’s meaning is the viewpoint that everything that happens is for the best. When the full band comes in, the music changes from solemn to ecstatic, lyrics providing examples of the thoughts behind that title. “Unclaimed Graves” is sure to scratch your itch for great big sing-alongs, especially when the band tours to support the LP (I like how we can assume tours are coming nowadays, unlike during the past two years). “The Rest is Posthumous” has gorgeous ethereal string synth in the background, giving a heavenly quality to the otherwise raucous track. Another track of note is “Deep Fake,” an otherwise emotionally loaded song that ranges from ballad to rollicking pop punk song, has the cinematic quality of a spaghetti Western during the bridge. My favorite track of the album, I think, is “The Infirm Dreamers Dream.” Like a lot of the album, it’s not ‘just’ good pop punk; it’s got elements of indie, and the changing and varied textures of the track are gorgeous. In a true goose bump raising moment, “Folly After Death” has a bridge that recapitulates the opening moments of the album, repeating the lyrics and melody of those first solemn moments of “Pangloss.” It was unexpected and moving. The power of the songs, the strength of the diversity in melodies and textures, and the excellence of the production add up to a quality release, perhaps Elway’s best.
EMPEROR PENGUIN – Sunday Carvery (Kool Kat Musik, koolkatmusik.com)
London pop band Emperor Penguin’s latest LP is all over the place, musically. The opening track has gritty industrial sounding guitars and a strong beat, and I thought I was in for some Wax Trax like music. But other songs are power pop, indie rock, and almost 80s pop. My favorite song of the album has to be “You Don’t Know What You’re Missing.” It’s got hints of Brit-folk-pop, and I love the quirkiness and angularity of the melodic line. “Sputnik Sweetheart,” at times has the sound of a Duran Duran song, but it’s harder-edged. The lead vocals and close harmonies is what reminds me of the 80s group. “On the Motorway” has the sound of one of those late era Beatles tunes, with a homey feel that becomes orchestral. Here it’s an oom-pah band instead of a full orchestra. “The Ballad of Billy Farthing” is another Beatles-esque tune, reminding me of “Rocky Raccoon,” with the same loping quality and storytelling vibe. There’s breezy jazz-pop on this record, too, in “Let Me Take You On Holiday.” It’s got the sound of a travel ad, so spot-on, there. Besides the opening track, we also get harder manic rock music from “Fran Times a Zillion.” The band’s PR materials cite diverse influences such as XTC, The Kinks, Teenage Fanclub, Mungo Jerry (!!), and AC/DC. I can hear this in the songs, and diversity and variety can be a good thing, but this much results in a disjointed sound. I liked parts of this LP, others not as much.
MINIBEAST – On Ice (minibeast.bandcamp.com)
Minibeast is a three-piece mostly instrumental ensemble, featuring Peter Prescott, formerly of Mission of Burma (both times) and Volcano Suns, providing guitar, keyboard, and vocals, along with Keith Seidel (drums) and Niels LaWhite (bass). Like his former band mate, Roger Miller, before him, Prescott is moving away from standard indie rock and toward more experimental and mind-bending sorts of music. Those vocals are used less to sing and more as another instrument and as punctuation. This is definitely space jam sort of material, meandering on a journey without a set destination. The drumbeats are tribal and the guitars are eerie and spacey, with a Can sort of vibe. I think “Spiral Funks” is my favorite track of the album, as it’s definitely the weirdest, with a Nurse with Wound sort of Dada feel, various found sound samples mixed together, looped speaking, and funky guitars and beat. “A Few Thoughts About Thought Crime in 1969” is interestingly hypnotic, the repeating bass line inducing a trance-like state while Prescott provides a spoken word rant above, below, and around the music. The oscillating sounds near the end of the track are freaky, like something out of a 1950s science fiction film. The album veers into stoner jam realm with the appropriately named “Late Summer Haze,” a track that might be appropriate after ingesting mind-altering substances that leave you in a haze. After awhile, though, these extended jams (most of the tracks exceed seven minutes in length) get to be a bit too extended. The whole album is an hour and six minutes long. As interesting and cool as some of these tracks are, that may be a bit too much.
NO FRILLS – Downward Dog (nofrillsmusic.bandcamp.com)
No frills, indeed. This is minimalist pop music, thinly arranged and lo-fi. The songs are slightly jazzy, slightly lounge-like, and with hints of kids’ music influence, like some of those 70s songs written for Sesame Street film sequences back in the day. Guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards play relaxed smooth jazz-pop, while relaxed vocals sing nonchalantly. Everything feels light and insubstantial. And it’s also aloof and detached. I don’t get a lot of zeal from these songs. Everything is performed very dispassionately, with an even-keeled tone, resulting in little variety. Minimalist and lo-fi can be great, but lack of commitment is a fatal flaw to me, and I just don’t feel this album.
REMINDERS – Best of Beach Punk (Wiretap Records, www.wiretaprecords.com / Venn Records, www.vennrecords.com)
The other day a friend posted a link to a music video, saying that this was great. I agreed. It was a band I was not familiar with, so I just filed it away. Today I’m paying more attention because that band was Reminders, and the song was “If You Want It (Don’t Let Me Down.” Reminders are from a small corner of the UK, The Isle of Wight, an island off the coast of an island. Formed by teenagers a scant five years ago, Reminders are not quite a punk band, not quite an indie rock band, and instead falling somewhere in the no-man’s land in between. Best of Beach Punk” is a tongue-in-cheek reference to their origins in a small seaside town, and the fact that this is the band’s debut full-length LP, not a “best of” compilation. The songs cover the usual teen angst sort of topics that young bands write about, but the music is joyous. That they do it without falling into the trap of sounding like too many other bands is testament to their creativity. We do get songs that are punkier than others, like the opener, “Post Paris Blues,” which is a raucous good time blending old school first wave punk and gorgeous pop melody, in the way The Buzzcocks did so many years ago. And even rowdier is “Again, Again,” a song that reminds me of earlier songs from The Dirty Nil but injected with an overdose of pop. The lead single from the album, “Carousel,” is a standout, with its gritty guitars matching the dark mood of the lyrics, even as the tempo and melody try desperately to lighten the mood, almost as desperately as the lyrics would imply. “Does the carousel ever stop spinning? / Cause I've been sitting here watching the wheels go round, round and round / Do the losers ever start winning?” This is the way the song opens, and it’s something everyone of us can related to – the feeling that you’re going to come up short no matter what you do. It’s a song about being angry at yourself and at the world for being stuck where you are, like there’s no winning. I truly enjoy the ride that is “Waiting On You,” a song that has sedate wistful verses and a manic chaotic chorus. And the closing track, “Between Now & Six Thirty,” is completely different from the rest. It’s acoustic guitar, brushed drums, and vocals, sounding just as somber as the lyrics. It’s a song of hurt and regret in the instant after the wrong thing is said. The chorus sums it up: “I know you never meant to hurt me / You know I never want to see you cry / Between now and six thirty / I’m bound to have changed my mind.” Oh, and that song that my friend posted the video of? Truly outstanding. It’s packed with passion and despite the title, it’s less hopeful sounding than the other tracks. Sort of like knowing that you will be let down. It’s my favorite of the album, which is saying a lot, because this is an outstanding album, especially for a debut.
SCRUNCHIES – Feral Coast (Dirtnap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com)
“Feral Coast” is a great name for this LP, because the music feels wild and untamed. Not in the sense that it’s out of control or anything; quite the opposite. It’s ferocious, though, like this band, despite the cutsie name, isn’t going to take shit and will fight back with zeal, should it feel threatened. The music has a raw quality, coming from a somewhat lo-fi recording, with primal guitar sounds and angry desperate vocals. The band uses clever arrangements, sometimes cutting the guitars completely, leaving just the bass, vocals, and drums, giving it the feel of a primitive war chant. I like, too, the use of shifting rhythmic patterns almost as another instrument in the band, though it never feels like math-rock. No intricacies in the music, just raw power. Even in the quiet sections, you can sense the tension, like an animal about to pounce. I hear hints of mid-period Dischord/DC post-hardcore influence, too, in many of these songs. ”New What” is a standout song, for a couple reasons. One, it’s different from the rest, somewhat more melodic and mostly more restrained. And two, I say “mostly” because it alternates between quiet and lovely and chaotic and noisy, providing some great contrasts and dynamic range. The quieter parts are gorgeous, with a cleaner guitar sound, and that drum-bass combination giving an ominous feel. The chaotic parts are pure nihilism. “Back Egg” is another one that’s got quieter and noisier sections, and the quieter sections have strong melodic content. “Ditch” is another standout track. I love the dark melody and the interplay between guitar and bass in the instrumental breaks. “Feral Coast” represents this Minneapolis band’s sophomore LP. It makes me want to go back and check out their debut.
SUZI MOON – Animal (Pirates Press Records, piratespressrecords.com)
What do we need to say? C’mon, it’s Suzi Moon! As she says herself in the title track, she’s a fucking animal and we’re her little toys. Suzi Moon is all-in no-nonsense rock’n’roll. That title track is the middle of a trio on this new EP, and it’s sensual grunge, if that makes sense. It’s slower, has a tribal beat from the drums, vocals that drip with, well, animalism, and a chorus that goes full-on Seattle. The first track, “Sonic Attraction,” is pure hard rock, a la Motorhead and that ilk, while the final offering, “Gold Record Autograph,” is fun power pop that could have come from the late 70s or early 80s. It’s bouncy and poppy, unlike Suzi’s usual offerings, and it could be my favorite song she’s ever done.
WHIMSICAL – Melt (Shelflife Records, www.shelflife.com)
Whimsical is not an apt description of this band’s music, though “Melt” is a good album title, because the music will melt your cold heart. It’s light, airy, dreamy stuff, with big guitars, floating vocals, and ethereal synths. “Melt” is the band’s fourth full-length LP, and their third since reuniting in 2015, after a 10-year hiatus. “Searching” is, perhaps, the biggest and dreamiest track of the album. It, too, is perfectly titled, with an epic, grand sound, as if on a wondrous journey of exploration. Krissy Vanderoude’s vocals ring out like a bell. The expansive feel of this song makes it an instant favorite. “Gravity” is a good example of what most of the tracks are like: big wall of guitar shoe-gaze, dreamy synths, and those gossamer vocals, so angelic, like something unreal. I’m not as much a fan of the opening track, “Rewind,” as the rest. The opening moments sound like auto-tune or some other vocal manipulation was used, and there are moments of commercial pop in this track that turned me off. While most of the tracks are pretty shoegaze-like, some are not. “Crash and Burn,” though it still has an introspective quality to it, due to Vanderwoude’s diaphanous vocals, the instrumentals and melody have a more urgent feel, with quick tempo and harder edge. It’s not quite bouncy pop, but it’s got a powerful beat and is much more a 90s indie sort of tune than the rest. It makes for a standout. If you’re a fan of big dreamy music with big buzzy guitars, check this out.
BAND ARGUMENT – Cow Tools (Oranj Discs, oranj.bandcamp.com)
Experimental math-pop nerds Band Argument return with their debut full-length LP. Pre-pandemic, the band had released an EP and a single, and I even managed to catch one of their few live shows back then. But, as with everything and everyone else, they’ve been sidelined for most of the past two years. Now that things are opening back up again, though, they’ve managed to release a sparkling new LP and have started to play live again. And, while there are still mathish elements in some of the songs, the quartet have traded in most of their offbeat tendencies for shining and exuberant pop melodies. The opening track is pure pop, bright midi-driven glittery synth tones combined with smooth gliding vocals. The time signature does subtly shift, but that’s not the main highlight of the song, as in past recordings. Melody trumps tricky rhythms on this outing. Most of the tracks are like this: smooth pop out front, more experimental tendencies in the back, quietly supporting the glimmering music. Even on tracks where the off-kilteredness is front and center, like on “Different Kind of Sea Monster,” it’s still smoothed out. Sila Damone’s lead vocals are silky and placid, tempering the effects of any trippy tendencies in the instrumentals. “Full Stop” is a perfect example of this. The instrumentals hop up and down, back and forth. But Damone’s vocals are much more even-keeled, keeping any overboard oddness of the instrumentals from overwhelming the song. There’s always an exception to the rule, though, and “Mango Bug” is it. Though fully melodic and poppy, the power of the shifting rhythms is the most predominant element of this song, even as the time signature remains mostly consistent. This track has the most instrumental diversity of the album, as well, making it a real standout. “Safety Line,” too, has moments where the quirkiness takes over, but other moments where everything gets smooth and sedate. Progressive rock has a long history in music. So does pop. Rarely is there something that could be called “progressive pop.” Band Argument are it. The only suggestion I might offer is to increase the use of dynamics in the songs. There are melodic shifts, rhythmic changes, and tonal shifts in the songs, but not much in the way of volume level. It’s another textural tool to make use of.
GOOD GRIEF – Shake Your Faith (HHBTM Records, www.hhbtm.com)
This Liverpudlian band has been around for nearly a decade, and this latest LP finds them presenting an uneven eleven tracks. Some of the tracks are pretty great indie rock with a poppy edge, while others are closer to bubblegum pop rock sounds. There’s plenty of guitar jangle and some lovely vocal harmonies in some songs, while others have a buzzier edge. Compare the first two tracks. “Metal Phase” is mostly light and airy, with pretty vocals, though the guitar tone is somewhat gritty. And “How Can I Help Falling In Love” is darker, noisier, and thinner sounding. “The Pony Remark” even has the dichotomy inside the song. The verses are great loping power pop mixed with a gritty guitar sound, but the chorus sounds like something from AM radio back in the 70s. I guess a reasonable comparison might be a less full sounding Superchunk; there’s definitely a 90s alternative feel here. “Dimension Jump” is an outlier from the rest of the tracks; it’s a ballad of sorts, but it drags and feels too heavy. It doesn’t have the bounce of the rest of the tracks. But the other ten tracks are pretty darn enjoyable.
NO ONE SPHERE – Isn’t Everything About Something (Broken Sound Records and Tapes, brokensoundtapes.bandcamp.com)
This debut LP from No One Sphere was a long time coming, begun in the pre-pandemic era and taking five years to complete. Dave Mann is the driving force behind No One Sphere, writing the songs, providing lead vocals, and making all the big decisions. Mann would send demos to Jarrett Nicolay, owner of Mixtape Studios, who would track the instruments and turn them into studio recordings. Mann would drop in to record vocals from time to time. The album leans into alternative rock and indie pop, with some strong 80s influences. The opening track, “Twin Coasts” channels power pop and new wave, but tries to grunge it up through use of a grumbling guitar tone. But the melody is too lively and bouncy to be grunge, and the synths add both a sparkle and retro 80s feel. “Where I Was” similarly has an 80s feel; it alternately bounces and glides, with power pop and indie rock trading places on verses and chorus. The synths make me think of the sort of glam pop that was popular in the late 70s. The melding of power pop and indie is most apparent on “Pictures In My Room,” with some of the licks reminding me of Paul Collins songs (The Beat, The Nerves), but the instrumentation is thick and dreamy. It’s a great combination that makes this my favorite track of the album. “Ceiling Fan” is an outlier, and has the sound of a spy thriller soundtrack, with a cool vibe that builds in intensity. It doesn’t feel like it came from the same writer. The album has seven tracks, but six songs. The last track, “Motivation Pt. 2,” is a long piece that exceeds half an hour, an ambient journey in dreamy synths. It ranges from eerie to ethereal, and it’s lovely, but feels even very out of place among the rest of the songs.
YUMI ZOUMA – Present Tense (Polyvinyl Record Co., www.polyvinylrecords.com)
Yumi Zouma hail from New Zealand and play breezy “alternative” synth pop. The music is light an airy, and rather than sounding alternative, it has a distinct commercial pop aura. I could imagine that, with some subtle changes to production, some of these songs could be top 40 hits. Many of them lean hard to “adult contemporary,” very relaxed and easy. The image of the sort of people who make and listen to this music that I have in my mind is guys wearing khaki slacks and white t-shirts, women wearing skirts and sweaters. It’s all very clean-cut and inoffensive. Another image I get is if a movie was made with all those John Hughes teen movie characters from The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and movies of that ilk, and they’re all adults now in their 30s, this would be the soundtrack.
BODY FARM – Living Hell (Blind Rage Records, blindragerecords.com / Dead Tank Records, deadtankrecords.com / So This Is Progress Records, www.sothisisprogress.com)
Hardcore! Body Farm is a four-piece from Ohio that rages, with hardcore, thrash, power violence, and even grindcore elements to their music. They’ve got eight new songs on this ten-minute EP, and their name is their politics. They’re active with NARAL, Planned Parenthood, Sex Militant, and the Black, Queer, and Intersectional Collective. Their lyrics are militantly political and songs touch on topics such as what real justice is, true equality, body autonomy, the harm greed does to society, police murders of people of color, and more. The vocals seethe with righteous indignation, and the instrumentals pummel. Besides the songs, there’s a spoken word treatise in the opening track, “20-20,” and various sampled clips from various sources to illustrate the issues the band is highlighting. The recording is somewhat lo-fi, but the fidelity in the sentiments is strong.
DRUNK UNCLE – Look Up (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, www.cylsrecords.com)
With a name like Drunk Uncle, I was expecting something along the lines of sloppy poppy punk rock, but man, was I wrong! This Austin, Texas band play really great indie that ranges from pop to rock, with emo-ish tendencies. I love the sound of the recording, which includes studio banter between some of the songs, making it feel casual and relaxed, like you’re there with the band, like it’s a house show, more than an album. The band’s command of dynamic range is impressive, as the songs range from hushed to lush, from controlled to chaotic. Guitars swirl and jangle, while vocals are alternately sedate and impassioned. Gang vocals spring up at a moments notice with fiery intensity, pulled back in the mix, like it’s the audience or group of friends singing along. I can’t help but be reminded of 90s Midwest bands, which I, of course, love, being from the Midwest. Captain Jazz and Braid come to mind. After the end of the first track, we hear people chatting as the guitar starts to meander. The song is “Depakote,” and after the initial intro, it explodes with impolite fury before settling into a slightly more relaxed introspective sound, dueling guitars playing off each other. Suddenly it gets very quiet, acoustic and electric guitars picking out a melodic line while a voice is barely audible in the background. Then everything erupts all over again for the finish. Like I said, excellent dynamic control. Contrast that to “It’s Everything,” which immediately follows. It’s a much smoother song with shifting meters and some start-stop hesitation. There are more mathish tendencies on “Get to the Moon,” with more gorgeous contrasts of smooth melodies and impassioned pleading vocals, and there is even a part for glockenspiel! One of my favorites is the slightly experimental sounding “The Sounds Coming Out of My Mouth.” Its texture is thick and complex, synths fluttering and playing an alert of warning. There are found sound recordings in the mix, too, as the track becomes a coherent chaos. This flows directly into “Punch,” with rambling rolling acoustic and electric guitars evoking a pastoral landscape. The track slowly builds, and then suddenly falls back to the lolling acoustic guitar. The bright pop of “Morning Shower,” especially the gang vocal spots, is hard to resist. As is the whole LP. This is recommended.
J PROZAC – Won’t Let Go (Rum Bar Records, www.rumbarrecords.com)
Longtime punk Jay Prozac, he of bands such as The Prozacs and Stiletto Bomb, also releases music under his own name. If you’re not aware of The Prozacs et al, they’re strong proponents of the 90s pop punk aesthetic. The music is crunchy yet poppy. And Jay does it well. The genre is thoroughly explored and well-trod ground, especially if you’re a fan of bands like Screeching Weasel and Squirtgun. But J throws in some cool curveballs that make this record better than just a generic 90s pop punk record. I particularly like “Regret,” a song that mixes in a heavy dose of late 70s power pop while keeping the harder punk edge. “People I Know” is a fun song, with a chorus of warning: “My mom says, my dad says, don’t talk don’t talk to strangers,” and it includes guest vocals from Jay’s son, Tyler. “Days Go By” opens as a lovely acoustic song with more power pop ballad leanings than punk, then the full band comes in. It’s still more power-pop ballad-like, even with the sparklingly bright pop pun guitars that join in. My favorite track is probably the title track, which opens the LP. It has a more urgent feel than a lot of the songs, big backing vocals, and a little more oomph in the chord changes than typical pop punk. Lyrically the songs are very much 90s pop punk, too, with songs that are mostly meaningless fun. A good example is “Building Blocks,” a song about a kid wanting to do nothing but use his imagination to build all sorts of things with the titular toys. One cover appears on the album: “Thirteen Days,” by Dirtbike Annie. Despite the funny bit before the song decrying J Prozac “ruining” a Dirtbbike Annie song, this version is reasonably true to the original and done quite well. The CD version contains six bonus tracks, including another cover, a punked up version of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Bottom line, Prozac isn’t breaking new ground here, but if you’re a fan of 90s pop punk (and who isn’t?), you can’t go wrong here.
LAMMPING – Stars We Lost (We Are Busybodies Records, wearebusybodies.com)
Canada produces some cool bands, eh? Let’s add Lammping to the list. The band is quite unique, quirky, and psychedelic. They have only been around a short time, but they sound seasoned. They take influence from the music of psych jam heroes like Hawkwind and Blue Cheer, as well as modern Krautrock adherents Stereolab. As such, the tracks are varied and colorful. The album opens with a meandering guitar and keyboard playing off each other in a dreamy sort of way, on “Everlasting Moor,” but after that short introduction the rhythm section begins to throb in a Neu! sort of way, but the melody is somewhat poppy and there’s a freaky psych guitar thing going on in the background. The whole thing feels pretty relaxed with s chill vibe. Next comes “Never Phoenix,” which is quirky in the best way, with a vaguely Eastern European ethnic feel and tuba providing the bass. Guitars occasionally provide a deep jab of psychedelia, and the whole thing has a bit of circus-like flair. I love the rolling feel of “Home of Shadows,” which ranges from folksy to soulful to Krautrock sounds. The short “’21 Interlude” is liturgical music that comes straight from the church of Funk. I love “Beyond the Veil,” which blends indie pop and 70s German experimental rock music, the end of which is cheesy funny Euro ethno-pop. The closing track is “Golem of Garbage Hill,” which borrows both from Krautrock and from Black Sabbath to create a psychedelic hard rock number. All in all, this is one of the coolest and most unique releases I’ve listened to so far this year.
VELOUR ACADEMY – Chisme (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlenumbers.com)
Upon listening to the first track of this LP, “Pulsar,” I was confused. Dark, growling synth provides the bass that one would associate with something somewhat industrial, along with a dance-like beat from the drums. But then ethereal vocals and clean spartan guitar comes in with a dreamy indie-pop sound. Other tracks eschew the grittiness for a breezy poppy sound, one that I feel is much more successful. I especially like the hint of retro 50s and 60s girl group pop in some of the songs, like “dsprnggirl” and the gorgeous “All Alone.” The latter almost feels like a ballad, particularly in the opening, though when the drums come in it picks up a bit. As might be expected, it’s a tearjerker of a song, about a breakup. Most of the songs are just lovely indie pop tracks. I like the overdubbed “Something About Your Eyes,” with dueling intertwining vocals, and a couple of gentle new-wave meets lounge pop tracks, “Soda Juice” and “Macrifoam” are lots of fun. The LP is ten songs in 23 minutes, but it goes by so quickly, the only disappointment is when it ends and I want more.
BROKEN FIELD RUNNER – Runner (Jetsam-Flotsam, www.jetsam-flotsam.com)
This new EP from LA’s Broken Field Runner ranges from indie rock to borderline pop music. It’s definitely further along the spectrum toward the mainstream than the last record of theirs I reviewed, 2017’s “Heavy Hanging Fruit.” In between, the band has released a full-length LP and yet another EP. But let’s focus on this new EP. As with the last record I reviewed, the first track is…different. In this case we get an a cappella choir singing a hymn of lament for a grandfather who has passed on. He was a drinker, but he didn’t get mean, he just got real quiet and fell asleep in his jeans. The song continues with a warning against following too closely in his footsteps: “You smell like he smelled / Your eyes are like his / You lean on his casket / Try not to fall in.” The song ends with the certainty that “We’ll all get our flowers, boys / For the first time / On the day that we die, on the day that we die.” It’s suitably solemn, and a beautifully somber way to start what’s an otherwise bright sounding EP. But where the previous EP was expansive sounding indie rock, this new EP is much brighter sounding, much more on the borderline with mainstream guitar based pop music. It’s sort of like the stuff that was called emo or pop punk in the 2000s, very broad strokes, poppy, but with angsty vocals and lyrics. “Baby Satan” has a distinct 2000s alternative rock/emo feel, while others veer directly toward mainstream pop melodies. Besides that first track, this EP lacks the quirkiness that I loved about “Heavy Hanging Fruit,” and the band just sounds more like so many other bands out there. The music is solid enough, and is performed well, so if you like this style you’ll enjoy this record. But it just didn’t do anything for me, and was a disappointment, given that older EP.
CAPTAIN RICO & THE GHOST BAND – Fréquences d’Outre-Tombe (captain-rico.bandcamp.com)
Do they surf in France? They must, because French band Captain Rico & the Ghost Band are an instrumental surf band, sounding like they came right out of the best surf breaks of Southern California. The macabre title translates to “Rhythms From Beyond the Grave,” and it’s an invitation to travel through a time warp to the 1960s, when guitarists like Dick Dale and bands like The Ventures, The Surfaris, and The Shadows ruled the (sound) waves. A notable exception is the opening track, “Sun Worship,” which blends surf with harder garage punk sounds, for a rough and tumbling sort of opener. Many of the tracks, for that matter, are a little gruffer than the progenitors of the genre, with a gritty guitar tone and a coarse attitude. It’s an appropriate updating of the sound, since surfing itself has gone from sedate wave riding to cutthroat competition, carving, and shredding. Captain Rico & The Ghost Band slash and slice through eleven tracks that would make a perfect soundtrack for a modern surf session. With most surf music, you know what you’re getting, but Captain Rico throws in a few interesting surprises. “A Long Time Ago” is a favorite track for it’s unorthodox guitar work on the bridge, using brighter poppier melodic phrasing and rhythms, even as the main portion of the track sticks to a more standard surf sound. “Secret Weapons” is a slower, lazier track, with plenty of bending notes, sounding like something Angelo Badalamenti might have written for Twin Peaks. Yeah, sure, you know what to expect when it comes to surf instrumentals, for the most part, but if you enjoy the genre, Captain Rico & The Ghost Band do a fine job playing it and introducing some modern touches.
EN GARDE – Debts (Count Your Lucky Stars Records, www.cylsrecords.com)
It’s barely a year since En Garde released an EP of music they had been working on for nearly ten years, yet here they’re back with a full LP worth of music. In my review of the EP I noted that I hoped the band was still going to be a thing because they’re that good. So I’m very happy to have this LP arrive and am pleased to announce that it lives up to expectations, but anxious that these are still recordings from the 2012 session that gave us the previous EP. The band is just a duo, consisting of Ross Horvath (vocals/guitar) and Andy Hendricks (drums), yet they sound much bigger than this configuration would imply. The music is a blend of math, emo, and indie; the music is incredibly intricate with shifting rhythms, and Horvath’s vocals are intensely passionate. The labyrinthine guitar work is matched by the equally complex drumming, but the vocals are stark and ardent. It’s hard to pick any favorite tracks, because they’re all outstanding. But I’ll call out “Vice Versa” for it’s great dynamic range, “Not Penny’s Boat,” not just for its title but for the mind-boggling technical nature of the instrumentals – especially those guitar glissandos, and “Friend Fiction,” which has some particularly lush sections, the guitar fully filling out the sound. If you’re looking for music that’s earnest and exciting, you can’t go wrong with En Garde.
GOODMAN – How Close Are You To The Ground (goodmanmusic.bandcamp.com)
Goodman returns with an album full of their modern take on power pop. The melodies are bouncy but unique twists include blending in some great shoegaze guitar buzz and some dreamy synths. The use of different keyboards and guitar tones gives the ten songs a variety of textures, keeping things interesting. And while there’s a great head-bobbing beat to the tunes and poppy melodies, there’s an aura of melancholy, too. This is immediately noticeable on the first track, “One Thousand Channels,” a song with a huge pop sound, but a pensive feeling, particularly in Michael Goodman’s voice. “Mis’rable” is another favorite, with a strong beat and somber synths and vocals. I like the deep buzz of the backing guitars and the contrast with gloomy synths. “Desk W/ A View” starts out with some weird jazz on a loop and undecipherable talking, which made my ears perk up – but though song doesn’t continue the experimental aspect, it’s quite different from the rest of the tracks. It’s more thinly arranged, and the guitar buzz is the thickest aspect. The synths are replaced with piano, and the mournful feel is very apparent, even with major chords and a strong back beat. “Sprint/Marathon” is another one that has deep rough buzzy guitars, and the contrast with the power pop melody is pretty cool. Good stuff.
THE INTERESTS – Capitulation (https://theinterests.co.uk)
After dropping their recorded debut single right at the end of 2021, London’s The Interest are back with another new single. Where their debut was dark and desolate sounding, this new single is bright and bouncy. It starts out with a lonely guitar jangle, but as the drums, second guitar, and vocals come in, it just brightens up, though those deep vocals still have an aura of melancholy. The guitar tone is clean, which contributes to the cheery breeziness. The tempo has a spring to it, though the lyrics are quite depressing, about a breakup. Happy sounding instrumentals with depressing lyrics is always a winning combination, and The Interests are now 2 for 2. I’m now looking forward to see where they go next, a full-length LP, and an American tour.
LIGHTWEIGHT – This One’s On Me (lightweightpunk.bandcamp.com)
Now we’re talkin’! Sacramento, California’s Lightweight gives us their first new music since the pre-pandemic full-length LP, “Sprits Down.” And, man, is it glorious! Huge gang vocals, epic soaring melodies, crunchy guitars, heartfelt lyrics, it’s all here. There are five tracks, but really four songs – the track “Plaza Ave.” is a solemn introduction, lonely guitar and burbling water effects appear alongside pained vocals. But it’s a short appetizer for the main courses. “Whiskey Is Not A Jacket” soon bursts forth, and get ready for true euphoric pop punk music! The tracks flow seamlessly, one into another; “Whiskey” yields to the more raucous “21 Grams Between Us.” It’s harder-edged, but also has an uplifting feel kind of like PUP meets RVIVR. There’s enough of a pause to “flip the record,” and “Bummers, Drive-Ins, and Vibes” continues the ride, this time somewhat more smoothly. The arrangements are intricate and executed with precision that many bands of the genre can’t match. Without missing a beat, the band launches into “Insomnia,” a more moderate tempo song, but no less energetic. Not only are the songs well-written and performed with furious passion and precision, the production is top-notch, thanks to Earthtone Patrick Hills, who recorded and produced the EP. These four little songs make one great EP. Lightweight needs to be bigger than they are right now, and this EP belongs in Best of 2022 lists.
ANN BERETTA – Rise (annberetta.bandcamp.com)
Ann Beretta was most active in the late 90s and early 2000s, then emerged in the mid 2010s from a long slumber. Their last new recording was way back in 2018 for Say-10 Records and Skateboards, and though the band was most well known as a late era Lookout! Records band, this time they’re releasing “Rise” independently. It’s an evolution for the band, not so much a departure from their past sound. But there’s more rock and roll than melodic street punk in this latest LP. The songs still have a strong anthemic feel, and will get the crowds pumping their fists and singing along, especially the opening track, “The Sound of Revolution.” But I can’t help but think of punk bands from back in the 80s that evolved after the end of the hardcore era. Some crossed over into metal, others gravitated more toward an “alternative” rock sound. While Ann Beretta’s latest effort doesn’t fall into the trap of sounding too commercial and slick, it definitely shares more in common with working class rock and roll than the mix of pop punk and street punk of yore. The choruses are big and the tunes are plenty raucous, but these songs sound like they would be more at home in an arena than a small sweaty dive. Standout tracks for me include the Blitz meets the Boss sound of “Dying to Feel Alive,” and the closing track, “The Last Song,” which has undertones of power pop in the melody. There’s nothing bad about this album, but it does seem to be a little too much like ordinary 80s rock and roll to me than punk or indie.
DIE! DIE! DIE! – This Is Not An Island Anymore (diediedie.bandcamp.com)
Ominous is the first word that comes to mind upon listening to this new LP from the New Zealand trio. The band has existed since 2005, and on this seventh full length LP, they’ve returned to their original lineup. The music has an urgent sound, the feel of warning of impending disaster. The clanging and chiming of the guitar in the short “Takaparawhau” is something that should have been placed first on the album, I feel, because it acts as sort of a clarion, a wake up call to us all for what is about to happen. The use of guitar harmonics to produce this effect is not new, but I always love it when I hear it. The short segment feels like listening to scratchy short wave radio, and has an otherworldly quality. But also the opening title track seems appropriate, too, with eerie ominous sustained guitar notes. It gives me the image of a bleak landscape in a post-apocalyptic world. As the rest of the band comes in, the guitars get noisier and more chaotic, as the drums and bass attack with solid punctuation. The vocals provide an air of desperation and a sense of unyielding trauma. As important as the guitar tone is to Die! Die! Die!’s aesthetic, the bass is equally so. Without the bass driven power of “Losing Sight, Keep on Kicking,” the song wouldn’t be what it is, even with the angular guitar stabs and wall of noise. Equally notable is the Albini-esque bass of “8 Months in the Lighthouse,” providing a subtleness at the start of the track, then a fast-paced rumble that underpins the bulk of the track. I feel like the butt of a joke listening to “Never Tire Looking At The Sun,” because the minimalist repetitive descending guitar line sounds like it’s laughing at me. For fans of the noise rock sound of yore, like me, it’s gratifying that bands like Die! Die! Die! are still making this sort of music. A dream international noise rock bill would include both this band and Germany’s Trigger Cut.
HUMAN ISSUE – Faceless Nameless (Rad Girlfriend Records, www.radgirlfriendrecords.com)
Hunter Martinez of Decent Criminal gets out from behind the drum kit and steps forward as the front man on this debut EP from new band Human Issue. And it’s not what you would expect from a guy whose other band is wonderfully melodic. Human Issue is rage personified. Martinez lets out the anger in this hardcore record, where he’s joined by an impressive roster of collaborators, including Rikk Agnew (Adolescents, Christian Death), Crow Jane (Egrets of Ergot, Prissy Whip), Bryan Lothian (A Global Threat), and Raul and Riff Cuellar (Corrupted Youth), who also co-produced this debut EP. And what a job they did, as did Martinez in crafting these nuggets. One wouldn’t know what they’re in for while listening to the first track, “Faceless,” at least until it’s nearly over. It starts out with a lonely piano, plonking with heavy reverb. We hear sounds of gulls or other birds in the background, and gorgeously hazy vocals sing the melody – and then the full band comes in, blasting angular chords, and we’re off! Fantastic hardcore, gang vocals, yet with strong melodic content finishes the track. There are lots of classic hardcore riffs in here, but also with mathish meter and rhythm changes. Metallic guitars punctuate “Circles” with angularity and rock and roll solo moments. Huge gang vocals fill the track, powerful passion oozing out of the speakers. “First Place” is a well-titled song, for it’s A-1 speed and rage. “Curtains” brings in some early post-punk hardcore and a cool pop melody contrast for the chorus, even as the noisy guitars still seethe and bristle. It’s a brilliant contradiction that works really well. The closing track of the EP, “Reflections,” too, has loads of melody mixed in with the hardcore, this time somewhat dark. At more than three minutes it’s the longest track, too, and ends similarly to the way the EP begins, in relative quiet and calm. As the instrumentals and vocals fade, acoustic guitar comes up in the mix, playing a classical sounding version of the same melody. It’s quite pretty. I’m awed by this debut, and highly recommend it to all hardcore fans.
BRYAN MCPHERSON – How to Draw Everything (bryanmcpherson1.bandcamp.com)
Coming out of Boston’s working class neighborhood of Dorchester, Bryan McPherson’s style has always been very direct. His songs fueled by anger, he never quite fit in with the gentler singer-songwriter folk scene in Boston or even the irony-filled anti-folk scene of New York City. McPherson, though, found a home for his style of music in Boston’s punk scene, where his plainspoken ire and political and social commentary were welcomed with open arms. It’s ironic that I’m listening to this record today, of all days, because today is the long-awaited return of Acoustic Revolt, a showcase series for acoustic punk and indie performers in San Diego. It was interrupted by COVID, as was everything else, and McPherson would fit right in. The songs here aren’t just acoustic songs, their impassioned pleas; they’re life stories, and their snippets of life. I like the arrangements with acoustic guitar and mandolin, with harmonica making appearance on some of the songs. There’s just something about stripping passionate songs back, removing a full band from the picture, the emotion laid bare. I think one of my favorite songs is “Alameda St.,” a song about returning to one’s roots, one’s true self. There’s a simplicity to the melody, a directness in the lyrics, and though the guitar strumming is fairly basic, the mandolin adds some liveliness. The bulk of the songs have a bit of raucous attitude, even as they’re bare bones instrumentation wise. This isn’t to say that McPherson is all working class fervor; he has his quieter, more delicate side. “Sweet Kari” is a quiet ballad, a pretty song of love and regret with guitar picking and violin; there are many layers to this one, making it a standout. “Troubled Times” is a very subdued number with a spiritual quality, the lyrics sung in a desperate pleading manner, McPherson’s voice raspy as he sings, “Oh God, when I lay my head down on the concrete and ground / In a stranger town of the lost glory bound / Won’t you take my troubled times.” It’s another favorite of the album. I know not everyone is a fan of acoustic music, but I know I am. This record gets a recommendation from me.
ORIGINAL SON – Currents (Sell the Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com)
This is my first exposure to Original Son, though the LA band have been around for the last three or four years. Their first EP was released way back in January 2019 – gosh, it seems a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? “Currents” is the band’s debut full length LP, and though they put themselves into the punk camp, for the most part they sound more like punks bands that have “matured” and are playing more of an alternative rock style. Not that they sound like Social D, but it’s the same way that Social D moved away from their punk roots into more of a rock and roll sound, gaining more mainstream success along the way. The production is pretty slick, the sound is full, and many of the songs have a darkness to them. That’s not the case with “Parasite,” though, which has a brighter upbeat pop punk feel, and is one of my favorites of the album. “Fire Away” is a standout track, too, with a sunny garage pop feel, slightly reminding me of toyGuitar, a favorite of mine. Many of the songs have the sort of feel of Against Me! or Hot Water Music, to give you a frame of reference. Even Dead To Me influence is here, particularly on “Shelter,” These songs are big and gutsy, and though the band may be playing smaller venues now (they are due to play San Diego’s Til-Two Club soon,) I predict they’ll be playing for bigger crowds sooner rather than later.
RADIO BUZZKILLS – Get Even (ProRawk Records, www.prorawk.com)
Are you nostalgic for 90s pop punk, in the vein of Screeching Weasel? Simple poppy Ramones-core music with snotty vocals and inane topics is still being made today by many bands. Some are sloppy, and some are tight and well executed. Radio Buzzkills definitely falls into this latter category. While they’re not breaking any new musical ground, Radio Buzzkills execute the fourteen songs with an expertise that will transport you to 30 years ago. Topics covered are a light-hearted relief from the ills of the world, as there’s no hint of political awareness. “I Want My Records Back” is a song about a break-up and who has custody of the records. And “Movin Out” is a breakup song, too, duh. “Date Night” isn’t so much a love song as it is about tripping out on magic mushrooms. Other hard-hitting topics include mental health treatment in “Then Came Thorazine,” being a slacker and a jerk in “King of Jerks” and “Never Gonna Get My Best,” and more. Better than the Screeching Weasel snot, though, are the great power pop songs featuring female vocals from Jen Buzzkill, like “I Fell For You.” There’s a Go Go’s quality to the song, played with more pop and less speed, more sweetness and no snot. It’s too bad her vocals are mostly relegated to providing backing in many of the songs. “Jennifer Gray” is love song to the actress, also sung by Jen with the same sweet pop. The snot and sweetness join forces and the lead on “Nothing New,” the sweetness tempering the sour punk attitude. Like I said, Radio Buzzkills aren’t going to be creating waves in the music industry, but if you miss the old days, they do a good job in the genre.
RIOT FOR ROMANCE (Friend Club Records, www.friendclubrecords.com / Steadfast Records, www.steadfastrecords.net)
Riot for Romance is a long-distance collaboration among three friends. They live in Georgia, Colorado, and Florida, but seem to be totally in sync with each other on this seven-song mini LP. The band play an interesting blend of shoegaze, dream pop, emo, and alternative rock, something I’ve not quite heard before. The opening track, “Destination Prelude,” is the dreamiest of the bunch; swirling guitars and a lazy beat mix with ethereal ambience on this minute-long intro. I thought I knew what to expect from Riot for Romance, but then “The World And Its Weight” played. It’s a much more straightforward indie rock track, heavy on the guitars, yet still including keyboards to give it a dreamier feel. There’s no shoegaze in this hardest-edged track of the record. The third track, “The Darkest Space In Me,” is the one that best represents the overall sound of Riot For Romance; it’s big and dreamy, still with prominent guitars, and played at a hazy lazy pace. Tons of reverb in the instrumentals contrast with drier and very emphatic vocals. “The Dungeon” is almost grunge-like, with a heavier beat and crunchier guitars, yet still with elements of airiness. “Less For Regret” has retro 80s pop sound, reminding me of bands like Tears for Fears or The Cure, but maybe with a bit less pop. “Would Be Remiss” leans more heavily on the indie rock ballad side, and the closer, “Destination Somewhere,” is a bright and misty instrumental that brings back the swirling sensation of the opening track. It’s an interesting listen, but one thing that bothers me is the uniformity of tempo and lack of dynamic range. The songs are all played at a dirge-like tempo and without changes in volume level. The mix of textures and genres is nice, but variety in other ways would be nice too.
THE RUMJACKS – Brass For Gold (Four Four Records, www.fourfourmusic.com)
Celtic punks tend to release new records around this time of year, in preparation for St. Patrick’s Day festivities. The Rumjacks’ new LP continues that custom, with music that blends Irish tradition with raucous punk rock. If you’re a fan of this sort of music, you’ll know exactly what to expect. Our fearless editor doesn’t care for it, but me? I love it! It’s great party music, and it mixes two favorite genres of mine. Penny whistle, banjo, and accordion mix with guitar, bass, and drums, while gang vocals sing out in camaraderie. What could be better than lifting a pint with your best mates and singing along to music like this? The band even changes things up by injecting ska-punk into the mix; “Bloodsoaked” has a ska rhythm along with the Celtic melody and instrumentation. But most of the songs are pretty straightforward fun Celtic punk. “One for the Road” is a blast, the sort of song you might hear at an Irish pub with live music, except adding electric guitars bass, and drums. Another pair of tracks that are a little out of the ordinary for a band of this genre are “Across The Water,” which has a slight country western feel mixed with pop punk, and “Blinding Flash,” which is even more heavily western folk. An interesting thing about this band is that the members are scattered across the globe. Most of the live in Australia, but they have a member who lives in Boston and another in Europe. It must make getting together for band practice tough. Obviously they do find time to get together, though, because this record sounds great!
TANGLED UP – Silk Embroidered Light (Knife Hits Records, knifehitsrecords.com)
Tangled Up is just that – a tangle of genre bending, a band hard to pin down. Take “Entertainment,” the opening track of this five song EP. It starts out with odd noises and vocal shrieks, leading one to think it’s an experimental avant-garde band. But then the guitar, bass, and drums take over, playing a jumble of noise rock, math rock, and Dischord post-emo, sort of like an exaggerated noisy off kilter version of Jawbox. Dissonance is tossed about, robotic guitar lines wobbling in contrast to the crooning vocals. The juxtaposition of an air raid siren with a bouncing beat and those vocals on “Infinite Haircut” is fascinating, angular guitar stabs and dissonant chords populating the four minutes of the track, side by side with heavy grunge. I love the jazzy post rock feel of “Panic,” the tap-tap-tapping on the ride cymbal and the subtle groove of the bass. Even when the guitar comes in and injects a dose of noise and chaos, the non-standard meter of the track keeps the groove going. I think this one is my favorite of the bunch. This is Tangled Up’s second release, and it led me to check out their almost as compelling debut from 2020. You’ll feel so compelled, too, I trust, but this new one is even better.
LA ARMADA – Anti-Colonial Vol. 2 (Mal De Ojo Records, maldeojorecords.com)
Following up the excellent “Anti-Colonial Vol. 1” that came out in 2018, La Armada provides a requiem for a post-pandemic society, one in which politics carries the day over truth, where thoughts and prayers are substituted for concrete action, and the consequences of corporate greed have come home to roost. La Armada play brutal hardcore that, nevertheless has an almost orchestral quality. The arrangements are thick and meaty, the vocals shouted and shrieked with fury, and lyrics in both English and Spanish. There’s lots to be angry about, like in “Memento,” about the manipulation for political gain being thrust upon society, with news and the internet full of misleading information designed to sway us into one way of thinking or another. The music on these songs is incredibly dense, full of layers of instruments, competing melodic lines on an epic scale. Listen to “La Fe No Abasta” (Faith Is Not Enough), and hear what feels like a folk melody melded into the pounding intensity of the hardcore that grinds at the end of the track. Race relations and the changing demographics of the nation are tackled in “White Jesus,” an indictment of Christian Nationalism that has overtaken a segment of society. We hear a sound clip at the start of the track, with a woman claiming to speak for America saying, “The America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people, and they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.” How demographic changes can be “foisted upon” people isn’t explained, but it’s clear that a vocal minority are trying to hold onto old racist ways that don’t serve our country well. The lyrics speak to that white Christian nationalist attitude that anyone who isn’t a white Christian should keep quiet, fall in line, and accept the will of the powers that be. This album is denser, more complex, angrier, and more chaotic than “Anti-Colonial Vol. 1,” an album that made my Best of 2018 list. Highly recommended!
CHEAP STAR – Wish I Could See (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
Cheap Star’s latest LP is their first in six years, since 2016’s “Songs for the Farrelly Brothers.” It finds the band continuing to expound on their gorgeous indie sound, with hints of 60s and 70s pop influence, but more deeply rooted in 90s and 2000s indie. Cheap Star is still led by Remi Vaissiere, who writes and sings lead on all the tracks. But an all-star cast joins to contribute on this album, including Jon Auer (The Posies), Brendan Benson (The Raconteurs), Gary Louris (The Jayhawks), Brian Young (The Posies, Fountains of Wayne, Jesus & Mary Chain), Matthew Caws (Nada Surf) and the one and only Mitch Easter. There’s a lovely ethereal quality that underlies the tracks here, even as there’s plenty of guitar jangle. Dueling vocal lines intertwine on some songs, creating a delicate latticework of texture, even as the guitars and rhythm section drive hard. If it’s not guitars jangling, its piano, like on the lovely “You Don’t Want to Change.” The title track is a favorite, for the train-like feel from the deep bass and acoustic guitar, to the great power pop melody, and to the gorgeous harmonized vocals. I especially love the ending of the song, with lonely electric guitar and keyboard and harmonized vocals. There’s also judicious use of non-traditional indie instrumentation such as the banjo and violins on the pretty ballad, “Slow Down.” It makes the song sound both lush and homey, at the same time. And what pop album would be complete without at least a nod to The Beatles? The closing track, “What It’s Like” is it; though it sounds reasonably modern, there’s a definite Beatles feel to the melody and some of the backing instrumentals. I really like how Cheap Star takes classic power pop and updates it with a rich indie sound. This release is well-recommended.
DAVID HEATLEY – Life Our Own Way (Dream Puppy Records, www.davidheatly.com)
Cartoonist, animation director, sometime musician David Heatley is releasing his debut full-length LP, “Life Our Own Way,” and the fifteen songs here are quirky and varied, as could be expected, having been inspired by dreams during COVID lockdown. There’s blues, psych-folk, and dreamy off-the wall stuff. One might think that fifty minutes is too much, but it isn’t when there’s so much creativity going on. My absolute favorite track has t be the weird dreamscape of “Quarantine Blues.” With a 50s or 60s lounge-vibe going on, singing of the untenable boredom of isolation, the song feels like something from an alternate reality, with ghostly backing vocals and burbling instrumentals. At one point, the intensity ratchets up and the dream turns into a nightmare, those ethereal vocals turning into shrieks, wails, and moans. Electric fiddle lends an eeriness, t oo, as Heatly is joined by musicians from the Lost Bayou Ramblers on many of the songs on the LP. Other blues tracks include the quietly rockin’ “Blowing Off The World,” which opens the album (and ends with a bizarre, strangely sexual sound collage of voices), and the down home “You Make Me Work,” which sounds like it crawled out of the swamp and had a tryst with R&B from the 50s. I also like the light and lithe power pop song, “You Only Get So Much Time,” with ethereal backing vocals punctuating the jangly guitars. The title track is a quirky angular new wave/power pop track with minimalist instrumentals, featuring guitar and bass used mainly as percussion instruments, a tropical sound from the marimba, and harmonized male and female lead vocals. There’s 70s easy pop and easy jazz influence in songs like “Why Can’t We Say What’s Going On” and “If We Became Lovers.” “On Your Side” has Americana leanings, while “My Head Was In The Clouds” blends power pop with a relaxed psych-folk feel. And the oddest song of the bunch has to be the rap/new wave hybrid “I Love You (Duh).” It’s obviously intended to be tongue in cheek humor, with valley girl rapping over a funky synth backing line and weird percussion. Lyrics are from the female point of view, trying to attract the attention of a hot guy. “You must be some kind of idiot not to notice me staring / Don’t you see what I’m wearing / Now you just act like you don’t care and I walk by / I had you pegged for a smart guy / But you don’t seem to want no part of my heart.” It’s a song of role reversal, with the woman as the predator, telling the guy that “dumb is hot but only to a point,” and that he must be dense not to ask her out. Also humorous is the avant-garde garage rock of “Meme,” about not wanting to be fodder for the internet. There’s literally something for everyone here, and it’s a pleasant, fun listen.
MARSHALL CRENSHAW – #447 (Shiny-Tone Records, elusivedisc.com/shiny-tone)
Yes, it’s that Marshall Crenshaw, the one who released major label LPs back in the 80s. I guess his music back then could be loosely categorized as power pop, though he’s always trended toward the easier side of that genre, bordering on adult contemporary. Crenshaw has been updating and rereleasing some of his LPs, and #447 originally came out in 1999. And even fifteen or twenty years on from his heyday, Crenshaw was still making pleasant music, though like all of us aging rockers it’s got a softer edge than back in the day. There are songs here that have jazzy influence, and a country edge, too, but the power pop is still strong in this one. After the odd, chaotic jazz-rock intro, “Opening (It’s All About Rock),” is “Dime a Dozen Guy,” one of my favorites of the album.” It’s got a jazzy beat and a Beatles-influenced melody, a combination that works well. “T.M.D.” is another favorite, with a loping bounce to the beat. I like the poppy melody and the strategic key changes. Violin is used to add some lushness to the arrangement that would otherwise just be jangly guitar pop. The version of “Right There in Front of Me” is identified as a demo, but I think I like it better than a lot of the other tracks on the album. It’s got a simpler arrangement, it’s less busy, and it’s a nice easy power pop tune. Simple and stripped down is almost always better than overproduced. “Television Light” is one of those countrified tunes I mentioned, with twangy guitar and fiddle in the arrangement, though the melody is still power pop-based. It makes for an interesting combination. “Glad Goodbye,” too, has an Americana edge to it, with plenty of twang. Normally I’m not big on country, but I really like the melody on this one. It’s like blending a spiritual with pop music. Some of the songs border on easy listening for the rock and roll crowd. “West of Bald Knob” is a relaxed instrumental that could have been lounge music from back in the day, but it’s played with electric guitars, and mixes smooth jazz and country influences. And “Eydie’s Tune” is definitely a jazz ballad instrumental with only tenuous connection to rock music. There are two bonus tracks on the album, newly recorded according to the notes. “Will of the Wind” and “Sante Fe” fit right in with the rest of the tracks, even though they were recorded more than 20 years after them. The first is an understated blues-rock track, while the latter has that country-pop feel. If you’re a fan, this new edition might be essential. If you’re a punk or garage fan, or even a steadfast power pop adherent, this might be a little too relaxed for you.
DIVIDED HEAVEN – Oblivion (A-F Records, www.a-frecords.com)
Divided Heaven is the long-time project of Jeff Berman, who in the past few years pulled up his roots in LA and moved across country to the Northeast US, got married, and became a new father. I think, perhaps, these changes have affected his songwriting, because what used to be solidly punk-based rock music has been transformed into more mature songs, even more emotionally charged than before. Included on this LP are the previously released singles “They Poisoned Our Fathers” and “Baby in the Band,” the former being a gut-wrenching song about the generational divide that’s torn families apart in these times of massive division over politics, and the latter a beautifully understated and stripped down song of loss. There are eight other new songs here, too, ranging from the relatively raucous and anthemic “Monuments” to the quiet solemnity of “Reckoning.” “Reckoning” is stunning in its stripped down simplicity, piano heavy with reverb and ambient electric guitar being the only accompaniment to Berman’s passionate vocals. It’s the furthest away from Divided Heaven of the past, stylistically, but it’s one of the most moving songs the band as ever done. “Burn Me” is probably my least favorite track of the album, mostly because it reminds me too much of 80s commercial rock music, particularly in the guitar lines. But outside of this song, tracks on this LP are stronger, deeper, and more ardent, sincere, and heartfelt than past efforts (as good as they were). I think this is the best LP ever to come out under the Divided Heaven moniker. And it’s an early candidate for best of 2022.
JASON PAUL & THE KNOW IT ALLS – Homemade Vol. 2 (jasonpaulmusic.bandcamp.com)
Six months on from Volume 1, Jason Paul & The Know It Alls are back with a second edition of their pandemic lockdown-inspired project. In the challenge they gave themselves, Jason and Sean (Cole) would write a song one day and record it the next. The resulting songs are much more stripped down than their usual studio releases, and by nature there’s more of a lo-fi bedroom recording sound, and the songs vary pretty wildly, from raucous punk-influenced tunes to psych-pop to delicate acoustic folk ballads. What they all have in common is a relaxed, laid-back vibe, something that the Know It Alls are all known for. There’s even a track that reminds me of a stripped down progressive rock track from the 80s, “Silent Ovation.” Listen to the minimalist melody, especially on the verses, and see if you get what I mean. My favorite tracks? “Bone Fire” is a gorgeous tune, with acoustic guitars and organ, very subtle and understated. “Wishing Well” is a pretty, breezy and bouncy indie pop tune. I adore “I Thank You,” another of the lighter, more delicate tunes of the album. I like its lilt, and especially like its use of horns and synth. The blues-rock spiritual “Jack of Charades” is a fun one, stripped way back with just acoustic guitar and electric organ. It even gets pretty psychedelic on the bridge, and a little wild. And the subtle folksy tune, “Small Pond,” may be my favorite of all. It’s just acoustic guitars and vocals intertwining in the prettiest way. Jason Paul and the Know It Alls’ hometown of San Pedro, California, is a hotbed of DIY punk and indie music, and it’s quite a tightknit community. The DIY is strong in this new release.
THE ROYAL ARTIC INSTITUTE – From Catnap to Coma (Already Dead Tapes and Records, www.alreadydeadtapes.com)
Now a five-piece, The Royal Arctic Institute ring in the new year with a lush EP of instrumental music. The band is currently comprised of drummer Lyle Hysen, guitarists John Leon and Lynn Wright, bassist David Motamed, and keyboardist Carl Baggaley, all of whom have played with well known groups and artists such as Das Damen, Roky Erickson, Shilpa Ray, Townes Van Zandt and more. The musical works here are relaxed and lounge-like, with a strong dreamy edge, reminding me a bit of the music of Angelo Badalamenti, who composed much music for David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.” There’s plenty of ambient atmospherics to go with the lovely melodies. There are hints of very laid-back surf style in the guitar meandering, and bits of bossa nova rhythms in some of the pieces. Very chill, very relaxing stuff.
STILL INSANE – Black Sheep (Thousand Islands Records, www.thousandislandsrecords.com)
Thousand Islands Records is known for being a major outlet for skate punk bands. Usually it’s a genre that’s pretty predictable. But once in awhile you get a band that defies expectations. Still Insane is one such band. While loosely in the skate punk realm, with plenty of speed and loud metallic guitars, the band injects a lot of variety into the five songs on this EP, include pop punk melodies, bouncier pop interludes, gritty hard rock, bleating sheep, and the inevitable pandemic song; “Stay Home” is an admonishment to do our part to stop the spread of the virus. It’s fast’n’loud, but has a great pop melody rather than flashy metallic technical guitar playing. Still Insane is the sort of band that can appeal to a wide range of punks. Solid EP.
SWEAT – Gotta Give It Up (Pirates Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)
Sweat is a new hardcore/hard rock band out of Los Angeles. They take elements of hardcore, post hardcore, and classic rock and meld them into something new. The music has the raw energy of hardcore, the heaviness and melodic sensibility of post-hardcore, the rage of punk rock, and the rhythm section power of classic rock. Listening to “Hard Grudge,” you can hear Black Sabbath, early metal, and classic rock in the opening chords, but then chaos ensues, and the track turns into speedy hardcore. Back and forth, the song teeter totters between the two styles. The vocals throughout the album are snotty, shouted with maximum anger and ire. The instrumentals have more variety, though, and one of my favorite tracks has to be “Bone to Pick.” It’s one of the more melodic tracks, with a strong indie-rock feel, strengthened by powerful angular guitar stabs and 90s hardcore gang shouts in the chorus. I like “Machismo,” too, with its stronger post-hardcore melodic feel. If you like fast and loud hardcore and heavy punk, you’re going to enjoy Sweat.
DATURA – Arcano Chemical (Sell The Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com)
Datura is a post-punk band hailing from the Pacific Northwest that’s been together for the past few years. They’ve released two EPs, one before and another during the pandemic, but now they’ve teamed up with Sell The Heart Records to release their debut full-length LP. Post-punk is a wide-ranging genre, so to be specific, Datura delves into the darker goth-tinged side of post-punk. Think bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, and Bauhaus. The sound is maybe a bit more punked up, so think goth era T.S.O.L., too. The guitar tone is dark, the drums pound, and the deep vocals croon with a deep morose feel. Reverb is heavy, providing a thick foggy sound. While the tone is dark, on many of the songs the rhythm is bright, “Phantasma” is one such song; it has the same guitar tone and the heavy use of reverb, but the tempo and melody are bouncy, almost happy sounding. The lyrics are sung in Spanish, with the same dark croon as the rest. “The Chase” is upbeat, too, with the strong sense of dance track intent, though you can hear the minor/modal key giving it a grim and ominous essence. And I like the ebullience of “Sapphire,” a song that seems to insist it’s happy, even as the vocals and guitar tone cast a pall over the proceedings. Topics of the songs match the bleakness of the instrumentals, like on “Dare You.” “Get out here and throw me against the wall,” the song requests. “I want you to throw me around / I need you to beat me down,” it pleads. And then the song declares, “I am your piece of shit.” Talk about self-esteem problems. There’s a strong retro feel to the eleven tracks, because this is a sound rooted deeply in the 80s. If you’re a fan of the genre, check it out. If I had one suggestion to give Datura, it might be to change up the tone from time to time. The same guitar, bass, and drum sound is on every track, and the production aesthetic is identical, too. The sound can get a bit overbearing after awhile, and at nearly 40 minutes, it’s a lot of the same sound to take. Tweak the sound a bit between songs.
THE ERGS – "Time and the Season" EP (Dirt Nap Records, www.dirtnaprecs.com)
What year is it? Yeah, The Ergs are back after their latest slumber with their first new music in six years! And it really is like they were never gone. Half of the four songs are new originals, “Ultimate Falsetto Book, and “Half Empty Strip Mall.” The first has a pop punk doo-wop vibe and lyrics about kinda sorta feeling awkward around someone you have a crush on. The second is classic up-tempo power-pop-punk with Beatles-esque melodic influence, fitting since Mikey is a huge Beatles fan. The two covers are “Say You’re Sorry” and the title track, “Time and the Season.” “Say You’re Sorry” was originally recorded in the 60s by The Remains, and that original is an amazing fast-paced garage-like proto-power pop tune. The Ergs’ cover grits the song up with a modern punk edge, and while the polish of the original isn’t there, the power sure is. The title track is the better-known song, a cover of the Zombies’ classic. Everyone knows that song, which was released in the wake of the Summer of Love, in the late 60s. The Ergs’ cover is reasonably straightforward, though somewhat grittier than the original. It’s good to have The Ergs back. Rumor has it there may be tour plans.
LOLAS – All Rise (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
Are you ready for a blast of musical nostalgia? Then Lolas’ ninth studio album is something you need to check out. Though the band has gone through a number of lineup changes over the years, lead singer, keyboardist, and main songwriter Tim Boykin has been the sole consistent member, and he cranks out some great power-pop tracks. I hear a lot of Beatles and Beach Boys influence in the tracks, plenty of AM bubblegum and even a few surprises. The opening track, “To Be Mine,” sets the stage perfectly, with a big Who-like opening that quickly resolves into bouncy pop music. The vocal harmonies are spot on, and I hear a strong Beatles sense in the chorus melody and use of harmonies. I like how “Storm the Heavens” blends power pop, Beach Boys harmonies and a more modern indie rock sensibility. “Pain In My Heart” is a favorite for it’s big jangly sound; it’s a slower paced loping song with a pensive feel, yet the bright guitars make the song shine. And even better is my number one favorite track from the LP, “Messages From Home.” It’s raucous good fun, mixing Dickies-style power pop and punk. The chord changes are non-traditional, giving the song a surprising feel. The quick-tempo song feels powerful and is propelled forward by manic drumming. At one point there’s a quirky industrial bridge, with dissonant metallic clanging, and though it seems odd, it works. It’s a perfect, catchy track. “General Assembly” is another slower song, with a lost in your thoughts kind of feel. It’s notable, too, for it’s simple Pink Floyd-like guitar solo near the end. Out of the thirteen tracks of this LP, the only one I couldn’t get into was the last one, “All You Have Is Fire.” It has the feeling of 70s arena rock, so didn’t do it for me. But the rest of the album is solid good fun.
SCHEDULE 1 (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)
Yes, it’s still happening. We’ve heard this story for nearly two years now. New band forms, often well-seasoned musicians from other successful bands. They write and record a bunch of songs, and then the pandemic hits and opportunities to play these new songs for people disappear. Schedule 1 is based out of the Pacific Northwest, and features members of Bishops Green, Dead Cells, Candy (BC), and Systematik. The music they make is rooted in the goth-tinged post-punk of the 1980s, with a dark essence and a particular guitar tone that was predominant in that genre. The vocals are spoken emphatically, rather than sung or shouted. The passion is palpable, though there isn’t enough dynamic range or variety for my tastes. The songs are pretty much the same tempo, the same tone, and the same volume level throughout the six songs. One of the better songs is “Another,” because it spans both the retro and modern. It has the aforementioned tone, but incorporates a more modern melody in the chorus that updates the sound. “Paint It Red” is another one that takes element from both the past and present, with a bright jangly melody running the guitars and keyboard, but a dark pall cast by the production, the vocals, and the rumbling bass. Overall, while the elements are there – the band has good bones, as they might say about a house – I just wish there was a little more variety here. Maybe as they expand the song catalog.
ARTSICK – Fingers Crossed (artsick.bandcamp.com)
Artsick is an indie pop band that features Christina Riley (of Burnt Palms), Mario Hernandez (Kids on a Crime Spree, Ciao Bella), and Donna McKean (Lunchbox, Hard Left). The band, formed in 2018, had previously only released a single, so “Fingers Crossed” represents the band’s debut full-length LP. Musically, this is classic 90s and 2000s indie pop, along the lines of music you could have found on K Records, Teen Beat Records, Simple Machines, and Merge. The songs are poppy and bouncy, with a chaotic lo-fi mix, guitars jangling like mad while Riley sings in a matter of fact manner. “Despise” is a perfect encapsulation of the Artsick aesthetic: drums pounding away with a big bounce, the bass, thumping along, guitar making as much noise as possible, and easy going vocals, harmonized backing vocals included. “Living a Lie,” too, has the controlled pandemonium going on, never feeling sloppy, but feeling like a crazy jam, and the even-keeled vocals keep the song grounded. I adore the bright guitar tone and pretty harmonies of “Stress Bomb,” and the dueling vocals and breezy feel of “Vacant” make it a favorite of the LP. Sometimes the “matter of fact” vocal style falls just a bit flat though. For example, on “Look Again,” a song with great bass and guitar lines and driving feel. But the vocals are delivered in such a deadpan manner that it seems like Riley didn’t care about this one much, so it’s hard to get into the song. But overall, this is a nice listen for those of us who miss the classic age of indie pop.
THE DROWNS – Know Who You Are (Pirates Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)
Street punks The Drowns are jumping into 2022 with a new 7” rock and roll single. The A-side is a cover of the Slade track, but it’s not done as subtly as the original; this is a full-on rock and roll cover, with even more power than the original. The B-side is a new Drowns original, “Guidelines of Control,” but it’s completely unexpected classic rock, rather than the usual Oi-influenced music the band is known for. I love that the cover for the single is made to look like a well-worn sleeve from a ‘70s rock band, because that’s exactly what it sounds like. This is the music of my youth, and a helluva fun blast of nostalgia.
ONSLOOW (How Is Annie Records, www.facebook.com/howisannierecords)
When most people think about bands from Norway, the first thing that comes to mind is black metal. Dudes in black and white face paint, with strained vocals gurgling from their throats, raging guitars, and pounding drums. What most people don’t think of is bouncy, jangly indie pop with gorgeous clear female vocals. Onsloow, from Trondheim, breaks all the stereotypes of the Nordic music scene in all the best ways. Catchy melodies are played and sung with both sweetness and an earnest ferocity. Johanne Rimul’s vocals shine brightly as the instrumentals provide a lush backdrop, the drums providing a lilting beat. There’s lightness, an airy feel, as well as a gauzy dreaminess in the eight songs. “Nothing But A Memory” is a perfect example, with lots of bounce, a twee melody, but a thick arrangement that jangles and envelops. It borders on pop punk, too, with plenty of power. The opening track, too, is a great example. “SleepingDaydreaming” glides along, and there’s a fullness to the sound, even as the melody and vocals soar. “A Good Day to Forget” has a solid power pop melody, but with more modern indie pop aesthetic, using synths and overdubbed vocals to fill out the sound. I love the intense “Being With You.” It’s a driven song, with a powerful forward momentum. This is a strong debut from a band that’s going to turn the perception of the Norwegian music scene on its head.
PACK RAT – Glad To Be Forgotten (Drunken Sailor Records, www.drunkensailorrecords.co.uk)
Patrick McEachnie, formerly of The Corner Boys and current member of Chain Whip, has set aside his drums and picked up a guitar for this debut LP from new band Pack Rat. It’s twenty minutes of controlled chaos, bright punk rock with buzzy synths and simple melodies. The energy of these songs brings to mind the early days of The Damned (think “New Rose” and “Neat Neat Neat”), but maybe louder and noisier. There’s a palpable sense of early punk nihilism in the ten tracks on offer, and the vocals are shouted in the same “don’t give a fuck, can’t five a fuck” attitude of those early examples of the genre. Drunken Sailor certainly has their musical niche that they don’t stray too far from, and this release fits very nicely in the catalog.
REPTALIENS – Multiverse (reptaliens.bandcamp.com)
Reptaliens are known for their dreamy synth sound, but for this latest LP, Cole and Bambi Browning needed to get more stripped down, working without their band mates due to COVID restrictions. So the synths took a back seat to a more streamlined guitar/bass/drums sound. But never fear, judicious production values have maintained a dreaminess in the music, even as the songs are more firmly grounded in the indie-pop realm. It’s made “Multiverse” a great listen. The songs have a great balance of bounce and airiness. The guitar tone is crystal clear and sparkly, and the vocals have an ethereal quality. I adore “In Your Backyard,” one of the more effervescent songs of the album. The lyrics seem to be about someone with some emotional and mental health issues, obsessed with another person yet feeling alone. A lot of the song lyrics seem to deal with various mental health issues, with songs about drug use, thoughts of death, and feelings of loss and isolation. The accompanying instrumentals, though, are bubbly and upbeat. Of course the album has the obligatory lockdown song. “I Feel Fine” begins the musical adventure, with a song that details the boredom, insanity, and self-medication that came with that period of our lives. I think Reptaliens should consider retaining this more streamlined style, because I like it more than the synth beats of their past records.
SIS – Gnani (Native Cat Recordings, www.nativecatrecs.com)
Sis’ music is hard to describe. It’s dreamy, it’s lounge-like, it’s dancey, but it’s super chill. It’s full of dichotomies. Sis is Jenny Gillespie Mason, who sings and plays all instruments. And by instruments, that mainly means synths. The six tracks are synth heavy and loaded with samples. These songs all have a strong rhythm that makes them feel like something you would hear at a dance club, yet they’re way too relaxed and ethereal to be played at a dance club. Mason’s vocals are so understated, sung almost in a whisper, even as the music wants to rock out, like on the subtly funky “Light Is There.” There’s a strong beat in the percussion and bass and some strong buzzy synths interjecting, yet there’s also an ambient quality, with other synths enveloping everything else. This track also features some more powerful vocals by way over multi-tracked harmonies. Oddly enough, I think my favorite track of the EP is the instrumental that closes it out, “Gazelle Rites.” It has a mysterious sound, but also funky rhythms. This is not the sort of record I would normally gravitate to, but I didn’t hate it at all.
THE WOMBATS – Fix Yourself, Not the World (AWAL, www.awal.com)
The Wombats, that UK not-quite-so-indie-anymore band that’s been around for nearly 20 years, play music that dances around the periphery of commercial pop music without putting both feet in. Their songwriting remains vastly superior and more engaging than the typical arena-filling pop acts, yet they’ve become an arena act themselves. The music is bubbly, energetic, and, dare I say it, fun in much the same way as another band playing in the same end of the musical pool, The Happy Fits. The Happy Fits, too, have been seeing increasing popularity and selling out venues nationwide on their recent US tour. There seems to be quite an appetite for music that, while loaded with pop and a strong dance beat, still features interesting textures and feels more meaningful. In the case of The Wombats, those textures come from thick arrangements that go beyond the basics of guitar, bass, and drums, with an array of synths, harmonized vocals, and expertly executed production that enriches rather than detracts from the songs; the result is something that just sounds…joyful. You can’t help but want to jump around when listening to the opening track, “Flip Me Upside Down.” The song alternately is manic and ethereal. Likewise, “If You Ever Leave, I'm Coming With You” alternates between ebullient verses and a rich, lush chorus. The band even channels some grunge with “Ready For The High,” but in contrast with the noisy fuzzed up guitars used in places, the bulk of the song is light and lithe. Not all of the tracks are bright and shiny. “Method to the Madness” is dark and moody. I love the opening, with cool upright bass and percussion samples, with a jazzy feel, but as the song evolves it becomes a pop ballad that feels like they stopped the dancing round the edge and dipped their toes into the mainstream pop pool. Except for those samples, it’s probably my least favorite track of the album. One of the most amazing aspects of The Wombats is how they’ve reinvented themselves for a new generation. They took to TikTok, and found themselves legions of followers. They’ve taken Spotify by storm, with more than a billion and a half streams. And hopefully they’ll lead that generation away from the cesspool of modern pop music and into the light of not-quite-so-indie-anymore pop.
WRONG WAR – Once Upon a Weapon (Council Records, www.councilrecords.com)
Two years on from their debut, Chicago hardcore band, Wrong War, are back with another blast of intensity. The nine tracks here are powerful 80s and 90s hardcore, raging against injustices of the world. As can be expected, the ills of the past two years are well represented in the songs, such as the opening track, “Human Resources.” In these days where corporate overlords talk about how much they care for their “essential workers,” they still demand employees put up with poor working conditions and low pay. “Come on you bastards / Tell us how you care / About our well-being and safety / Of those instantly spared,” the song screams. But we know it’s a sham. As we’re pummeled by raging guitar, bass, and drums, the truth comes out: “Feigned compassion / As your profits decreased.” But with what’s known now as The Great Resignation, workers exclaim, “Your return / Is not our return / To normalcy” And purposeful disinformation is tackled in “Distraction Diet.” “You could be so enraged these days / So many idiocies to engage / A distraction diet / Of lies and entitlement / We’ve lost our way,” begins the song. Besides blazing hardcore in this song, there are hints of that DC hardcore influence I mentioned in the review of the band’s debut, “Fixed and Forever.” As much as I enjoy the 90s hardcore aspects of Wrong War, I like the DC influence even more. “One Year to Ancient: is a great track that blends that style with 80s Black Flag stylings, and it’s one of my favorites of the album. The last two tracks are, in my opinion, the best of all. “Architects of the Deranged” and “Has Your Master Come to Different Wisdom” both have a strong Dischord sound to them, feeling like they could have been released by that storied label back in the mid to late 1980s. Emotionally charged, filled with fury, packed with political ire, Wrong War has avoided the sophomore slump with another strong release.
THE CRAIG TORSO SHOW – Conflagration Vespers (thecraigtorsoshow.bandcamp.com)
Nearly a year ago, Joe Merklee released “Estonian Breakfast Strategies” under the Craig Torso Show moniker. I praised it for its variety, ranging from 70s low budget sci-fi soundtrack to rocking out to bouncy pop, with hints of psych and folk injected here and there. That record was a collaboration with Oliver Ignatius, but this time out, though Ignatius still has producing and engineering credits, Merklee did more of the writing. Last time Merklee played most of the instruments, this time there’s a larger group of friends contributing their instrumental skills (including Ignatius). And while the record remains quite a pleasant listen, there’s a lot less variety on this sophomore release. The songs rock out somewhat less, and lean in harder on the psych-folk-pop elements. It’s still lovely, but it doesn’t excite me in quite the same way as “Estonian Breakfast Strategies,” which came very close to making my list of top releases of 2021. Even the songs Merklee didn’t write himself are arranged in such a way as to sound more similar to the others. “I Saw Your Eyes In The Sky” was written by Citizen K, but the arrangement, with strings and harmonium, has that folksy psych feel to it. A collaboration with Citizen K, “Thief in the Night,” is primarily acoustic, but halfway in adds drums and organ. But the overall feel is still folk-pop based. “Strange Powers,” by Stehpin Merritt, eschews the light and airy synth sound of the original for a guitar-fueled pop-rock feel, and yet it feels right at home in the song sequencing. I do love the delicate “On Obsession,” a track written by Peter Blegvad. The original is fully acoustic, but while the instrumentation is filled out some on Merklee’s version, it’s just as introspective and moving.
Because there’s less variety in the sounds, there are fewer standout songs. But there are still some unique touches on this album. “The Work Of An Astronomer” creates quite an atmosphere with its use of a tanpura as a backing instrument. I adore the mysterious sound of “You’re Still Blushing,” which is probably the most unique track of the album. It feels like it’s based on an ancient folk song, with the drone of a shruti box and a harmonium matching the melody with the vocals. And there are nice touches in other songs, with use of other Indian and Indian-influenced instruments in the arrangements. Merklee credits Ignatius with these ingenious arrangements, and says he gets the praise for how the record sounds.
The one rock moment of the album comes at the end of “Noah Fents (faults and virtues),” a song which mostly stays on the same path as the others, but gets super loud and chaotic in its final minute, channeling a grunge sort of sound. Overall, this album is much more even-tempered than the debut. It’s still a solid listen, but the variety of the first LP is one of the things that knocked it out of the park for me, and that’s missing here.
THE DROLLS – That Puget Sound (Snappy Little Numbers; thedrolls.bandcamp.com)
We know that Ean Hernandez, formerly of 90s Seattle pop punk band Sicko, went on to form The Subjunctives, whose debut LP has been reviewed in these pages before. But what of the other members of Sicko, a band that, despite not being from the East Bay, was every bit as good as those Lookout bands? Now the truth can be told! The Drolls includes both other Sicko members, Denny Bartlett and Josh Rubin, as well as Julie D, of Guest Directors, Chinchilla, and Drip Tank. After releasing their first single way back in 2019, they’re finally here with their debut full-length LP. It’s not really fair to compare The Drolls and The Subjunctives, because they’re different bands. But the comparisons are inevitable due to the lineage. So here goes – where The Subjunctives retain the bright bouncy pop sound of Sicko, The Drolls lean more toward an indie rock sound. It’s still pop and punk, but no one’s going to think they sound like an East Bay band akin to The Mr. T Experience. There’s less bubblegum and sugar, more grit and more of a modern 2020s pop punk sound. Even a track like “Nobody Move,” which has a spring in its step, has a harder edge than anything Sicko ever did or The Subjunctives do. The beat bounces, but it does so emphatically, more pounding than bouncing. “Sad Little King” is a standout track, with more power pop than punk in it. And I like the hard-driving feel of “Worse Things,” a track that has a bright enough melody, but the execution is rough and gruff. “Bad Ear” has the power, speed, guitar, and bass sound of a mid-period Hüsker Dü track, which is always a good thing in my book. A couple of the songs drag a little bit. “Alternate Timeline” and “Rehashed: Rehashed” are both slightly slower, though not quite ballads, but they both feel a little out of place, without the energy level of the other tracks. On the other hand, “So Many Red Flags” is slower and more sedate, yet has a great indie-pop jangle to it. The album closes with an 80s cover, “In A Big Country,” by the band “Big Country. I keeping with everything else The Drolls do, it’s raspier than the slick new wave original. Bottom line: The Subjunctives are more similar to what Sicko was doing, while The Drolls are carving out their own spot in the modern indie pop punk rock scene.
LAVENDER BLUE – Slow Down (www.lavenderbluemusic.com)
Lavender Blue is the musical outlet for Kalya Zuskin, along with bandmates Margo Schultz, Landon George, and Mike Johnson. They’ve been making music going on five years now. The music is best described as dreamy indie pop, with lush arrangements and the feeling that you’re half awake, yet still dreaming. The drowsiness of the music is amplified in Zuskin’s vocals, which sound like she’s singing in her sleep. The understated quality of the vocals, though, is overshadowed by the intonation, or lack thereof. Particularly on the first track, “September Moon,” the vocals are woefully out of tune, at times clashing painfully with the lovely ethereal instrumentals. Other tracks are somewhat more tuneful, but fall flat and are emotionless. The closing track of the five on this EP, “Of My Love,” is also out of tune; multi-tracked vocals that are meant to be unison are rife with wavering harmonics of two notes that don’t mesh. This may be intentional, this time, because the instrumentals also sound somewhat wobbly, like a stretched tape or a turntable that’s not spinning at a consistent speed. This was a difficult EP to listen to.
ALIEN NEIGHBORHOOD – Fear is the Enemy (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlennumbers.com)
Part indie, part pop punk, part folk, and part emo, Alien Neighborhood presents songs that simultaneously tug at your heart and make you want to dance. There’s a ton of variety in the ten songs, which is something I love. Every song sounds sincere, like these aren’t just songs, but personal experiences and pleas. The album opens with ‘Cauterizer,” one of the better indie tracks I’ve heard lately. I think what’s being cauterized here is not a physical wound, but an emotional one. “Side glance reflections / Will be the end of me / I can’t tell right now / Who I’m supposed to be,” says one verse. It seems to be a fear of being judged “Stop looking at me / Stop looking at me / Stop looking at me / I don’t like it,” cries the chorus. The song has a huge pleading sound. I like “Say Goodbye,” too, with a big pop punk edge and vocals the sound more than desperate. “What’s in your head that’s keeping you out of mine?” asks the opening line of “From the Top,” a song about wanting to try to make a relationship work again. It’s a slower track, almost a ballad, that starts out quietly but builds in intensity. “The Infamous Mind Experiment’ drops the pop for a hard-edged grunge sound, guitars growling as much as the vocals. Old school hard rock permeates this one, with loads of fuzz. But as the song comes to a close, string synths are incongruently added to the mix, as random guitar feedback is injected. And “I Am” is acoustic-based singer-songwriter fare, light and lovely in sound, but heavy in lyrical content. Guitar and violin dance around each other to accompany the subdued vocals. The closing track is a bookend of sorts, with the opener. “Trust Yourself” is subtitled “Cauterizer Part II,” and is an incredibly joyous tune about getting past all the self-doubt and fear of judgment. After some opening shouts that are unmistakably full of elation, the song declares, “When after all this time you’re still right here / Pushing past the sadness and facing your fears / So take your time with indecision, follow through with your own vision.” The chorus is a shout from the rooftops, “Trust yourself, trust yourself, trust yourself and you’ll be fine, kid.” It’s glorious and inspirational. Alien Neighborhood has not just variety and sincerity, but thoughtful arrangements that really make these songs work well. Even more amazing is that Alien Neighborhood is the work of one person, Jaden William, who is a mere 20 years old and living in a tiny town of 567 people inn Nevada. Jaden has been making music under the Alien Neighborhood moniker since the age of 15. My mind is blown.
THE CUTTHROAT BROTHERS AND MIKE WATT – Devil In Berlin (Hound Gawd Records, www.houndgawd.com)
After the LP collaboration between the self-styled “Sweeny Todds of punk” known as the Cutthroat Brothers and legendary bassist Mike Watt, earlier this year, they’re back with another full-length. It’s further adventures in sleazy, greasy, garage-blues-rock and rockabilly, sounding like it crawled out of the swampy bayou. The guitars growl, moan, and wail while the vocals drip with a too-cool nonchalance. Their sound is typified in songs like the chaotic grinding of “Bad Candy Girl,” the bluesy “Love, Drugs, Etc.,” and the rockin’ bass-driven title track. Stand-out tracks for me include “Out Of Our Cage,” which injects a dose of psych into the mix, the eerie “Like A Zombie,” a perfect track for a punk rock Halloween, and the album closer, “Wild Western,” which isn’t so much a dusty track as it is gritty and gravelly. An outlier is the pop-filled “Been Away,” and though it still has the same guttural guitar tone, the melody sparkles and shines. As good as their first collaboration LP was, I think this one’s even better.
JOSH CATERER – The SPACE Sessions (Pravda Records, www.pravdamusic.com)
Earlier this year, Josh Caterer, of The Smoking Popes, got together with drummer John Perrin and bassist John San Juan, both accomplished musicians from other bands, and put together a set of standards and covers. They performed this “live” at Chicago’s “The Hideout” to an empty house. The set was live streamed to a ticketed audience, but for those who missed it, the set was recorded and released as “The Hideout Sessions.” Both the show and the record were received so well that the trio decided to do it again, this time performing at SPACE, another of Chicagoland’s many venues. The result is ten songs that mix standards, classics, some Popes material, and some other Caterer originals.
The album opens with a cover of the pre-disco Bee Gees folk rock hit, “I Started a Joke.” It’s a song about feelings of worthlessness, and being out of step with the rest of the world, a life misunderstood until the protagonist literally dies, “which started the whole world living.” Where the original is subdued and solemn, Caterer and friends make the song sound uplifting. One can see a religious meaning in the song, which would make sense, given Caterer’s well-known faith. Etta James’ iconic classic, “At Last,” is presented with an unexpected arrangement. It’s played as an upbeat soulful song, and the trio are joined by a bevy of horns, and man this song can swing like you never expected! The unforgettable Nat King Cole song “Smile” is covered here, and the dichotomous nature of the song is felt strongly, the plea to cover up the pain of life and put up a bold front is felt in the sparse arrangement. The horns make a return on a decidedly un-country version of Willie Nelson’s country ballad, “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” I especially like the moment given to the trombone and trumpet to really shine in an extended bridge that takes on the air of a baroque chorale. And the album closer takes the Elvis ballad, “If I Can Dream,” and turns it into a rollicking tune.
One of the most touching moments of the record comes with “Somethin’ Stupid,” a song popularized by Frank and Nancy Sinatra. Joining Caterer on the pretty harmonized vocals is his daughter, Phoebe.” The pair have often done Facebook live streams, and it’s become clear that Josh is not the only Caterer with an unforgettable voice.
Caterer covers himself again, but not just Smoking Popes songs. “Racine” was a song released by his band, Duvall, and this version feels lighter and jauntier than the original, with more of a pop feel. “Don’t Be Afraid” comes from The Smoking Popes LP, “Get Fired,” but this cover is significantly slowed into a lovely rock ballad. “Waiting Around” has become a staple of the Popes’ live sets, and this trio version takes on an almost funk feel, slightly slower, and a lot less raucous, though there’s a Jimi Hendrix inspired guitar solo toward the end. And another Popes staple, “I Know That You Love Me,” is done here as a slower and more emotional waltz.
While it’s probably true that Josh Caterer could sing a version of Mary Had a Little Lamb and I would find it compelling, I must say that with this and the previous “Hideout Sessions,” he’s breathing new life into old classics, his own and those of others.
JUKEBOX ROMANTICS – Fires Forming (Sell The Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords / Engineer Records, www.engineerrecords.com)
This EP is a perfect example of why it’s such a bad idea for media outlets to publish their Best of the Year lists in November. You miss out on including excellent releases that come out in December, like this new five-song EP from Jukebox Romantics. It starts out fast and furious from the first song, “Time To Fly,” and never lets up one iota. The songs are full of energy, loaded with melodic goodness, ready-made for sing-alongs, inspirational, and joyful. Every song is a real banger, but special mention must be made of “Castaway,” the song that closes the EP. It starts and ends in waltz time, unusual enough for a punk song, but the huge vocals in the bridge had the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. Outstanding.
MONTY VEGA AND THE SITTIN’ SHIVAS – Sonic Gloss (www.monntyvega.com)
I’m going to start by grading this band an A just for their name. If you’re unaware of such things, “sitting shiva” is the Jewish weeklong mourning period after the funeral of a loved one. People come to the family home, bringing food and comfort to the mourners. And if you’re a fan of 90s Ramones-core punk rock, this album will bring comfort to you. Songs like “Don’t Wanna Do What’s Right,” a song about living for the moment, will bring nostalgia for Insub Fest and the like (even though this band wasn’t around back in those days and are from the Pacific Northwest, not the East Coast). A lot of the songs, in the 90s Ramones-core tradition, are humorous or tongue-in-cheek satire, such as the bouncy “Facebook Fighting” and “Flashbang Grenade,” which are pretty straightforward fare. And “Not This Time” is one of the brighter sounding songs of the album, with some variety within the track, making it a favorite. It’s got an epic sounding bridge in the middle that I like. Not everything is Ramonescore. There’s the blues-rock of “Gravity Man.” There are some covers here that are fun. “Daydream Believer” was popularized by The Monkees in the ‘60s, and is done as a punked up version here, rougher and noisier than the AM pop song written by John Stewart. There’s a really different version of “Ghost Rider,” a song done by The Gories, Suicide, and many other bands. Here it’s a slow burner blues-rock tune. Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” is covered, too, but it’s less sparkly and energetic than the original, feeling like the band was a little bored to be doing it. But to redeem themselves, they give us a rocking version of Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory.” Monty Vega and the Sittin’ Shivas aren’t setting the world on fire here, but that’s not what sitting shiva is about. It’s about comfort and celebration of life, and they do a fine job of that.
J ROBBINS / HER HEAD’S ON FIRE – Split 7” (New Granada, www.newgranada.com)
First off, any occasion when there’s new J Robbins music is reason to celebrate. I was and am a huge Jawbox fan, as well as Burning Airlines, Office of Future Plans, and really anything he’s done. He’s a dynamic songwriter, creating music that’s exciting and poetic. Here he teams with new band Her Head’s On Fire for a split 7” single. Robbins collaborates in this solo outing with Peter Moffett on drums, with whom he played in Government Issue and Burning Airlines, as well as Gordon Withers, the cello wizard who has played in Office of Future Plans and other efforts (here on guitar), and Brooks Harlan, also from Office of Future Plans and new guitarist in Jawbox, replacing the departing Bill Barbot. The song is “Uncle John,” and it’s just what we would expect from J, if you’re familiar with his music. It’s an energetic song, forceful without being too aggressive. But it’s what I didn’t expect from a J Robbins song that I really like: unexpected complexities in the arrangement, a wider dynamic range, and shifting time signatures. It makes for a really enjoyable song.
Her Head’s On Fire makes their official recorded debut (not counting their 2020 demo) with their contribution, “Certain As.” They say of the meaning of the song, “Often in life we want what we cannot have, attracted to the aspects of others that we feel are inadequate in us." Musically, the band describe themselves as “REM having sex with Samiam. Oasis gets to watch.” I don’t know about that, but to me it’s a blend of 90s indie rock with hints of dreaminess, a big dose of pop, and just a dash of emo. So, OK, maybe their description fits. Whatever it is, it’s a solid debut, and makes me look forward to more.
DIGDOG – Homeless Theater (www.facebook.com/DigDogBook
)Florida’s DogDog do have previous releases, as they mention in the press release accompanying this LP. But the trio have spent much of the pandemic retooling who they are as a band that they’re considering this to be a debut of sorts. Unfamiliar as I am with the band’s past output, I’ll accept that and declare this to be a great debut. It’s got a fantastic quirkiness to it, with pop angularity mixed with classical virtuosity. Delicate guitar plucking opens the album, with the lovely dark song about the transient nature of life, “Highfingers.” The oddities continue with “One Guarantee,” a song that has off-kilter rhythms and see-saws between thin instrumentation and wall-of-sound guttural guitars. Vocals are smooth and mysterious through most of the track, save for the spoken bridge that reminds me of the Washington, DC band 9353, one of the strangest and most fun bands to come from our nation’s capitol. I enjoy “Sirens of Hell,” too, with its evil growling guitars giving way to delicate plucking and a minimalist melody. The song reminds me of Chicago’s late lamented The Fire Show. “Country Gentleman’s Club” has a lovely flowing quality, with hints of old time western songs and gorgeous classical guitar work. “Tree Bones” begins with the intoning of guitar harmonics, then takes on a rolling and rollicking character, with jaunty guitar lines that seem to undulate. The penultimate track, “Glad at the World” is as happy sounding as the name implies, almost taking on the feel of a kids’ song. The songs here are quite varied, yet all of similar levels of unusual melodies and arrangements, making this one of the more interesting and unique records to come out this year.
THE INTERESTS – "Attention" (https://theinterests.co.uk)
Brand new band The Interests just formed in March of this year, and wasted no time getting some recording time in. This single is their recorded debut as a band, and it’s a dark indie rock tune, solemn in feel, with dispassionate vocals and lonely buzzing distorted guitars. The bass and drums drive hard on the downbeat of each measure, propelling the song along. As full as this sounds, the image it evokes in my mind is of a desolate landscape, a thick fog casting a pall over everything. The Interests have my attention.
MASSAGE – Lane Lines (Mt. St Mtn., www.mtstmtn.com)
Mere months after the release of their sophomore LP, “Still Life,” Massage are back with a new six-song EP. Like the LP, the songs here are lovely jangle-pop, relaxed and just a bit dreamy (but not dream pop). I love the title track, with its acoustic guitar in the mix and a driving quality, even with its soft easy edge. The use of synths and the bass driving the melody on the intro to “In Gray & Blue” reminds me of early New Order, but as the song continues the jangle takes over in a big way, lush and lovely. It’s a new mix of the same song from the “Still Life” LP, and I think it’s the better version, lusher yet more delicate. This EP also includes Massage’s first recorded cover: “I’m Going In a Field,” originally released in 1967 by the Ivor Cutler Trio. The original is pretty much a poem sung with a harmonium, with the mysteroious 60s Celtic folk feel. The cover gives the song more of a psych-folk treatment, with gauzy harmonized vocals and jangly six and twelve string guitars. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Two demos make their way onto this EP, too. “Without Your Love” is an acoustic gem, slated to be redone with the full band on the next LP. And “Half a Feeling” is the original demo recorded early in the pandemic, which made its way to becoming the lead single from “Still Life.” This new EP from Massage hasn’t changed my mind about them at all; they’re wonderful.
NIGHT COURT – Nervous Birds (Snappy Little Numbers Quality Audio Recordings, www.snappylittlennumbers.com)
One of the things I love most about this “job” is discovering new bands. Such is the case with Vancouver, BC, Canada’s Night Court. “Nervous Birds” is the band’s debut LP, and what a debut it is. I hear definite garage punk influences here, but it’s also loaded up with pop goodness and punk raucousness. “Circus Of Wolves,” which opens the album reminds me of a mix of old school punk and the Ohio band Vacation, but with an extra injection of pop, and it’s a real standout track. The retro-like sounds of “Late for Dinner” reminds me of California’s Decent Criminal, with hints of 60s pop in the mix. The melody and bass line of “Diagnosis Weirdo,” oddly, remind me a bit of early Human League (yeah, the 80s new wave band). And I love the borderline indie “The Question,” probably the jangliest Night Court get, as jangly as you can get with the distortion pedal on. The dark, noisy “Drop The Bomb” is tongue-in cheek about the stupidity of cold war espionage and spying, with lyrics that say, “Don’t look now, it’s the CIA / Staking out dancers from the Russian Ballet / This is what we waited for / Crouching under tables on the classroom floor.” Night Court have reinforced my thoughts that there are no bad Canadian bands.
ALL HALLOWED – II (Friend Club Records, www.friendclubrecords.com)
Dayton’s All Hallowed is, at its core, the duo of Lacey and Ricky Terrell, and Chris Cox joins them here on drums. The five songs here are dark, almost goth-like, with a punk sensibility and even a danceable beat. The arrangements are quite sparse, with just vocals, bass, and drums. The melodies have a retro 80s feel, and there’s a contrast between the smoothness of Lacey’s vocals and the distorted coarseness in the drums and bass. Overdubbing helps fill things out with some harmonized vocals, but the starkness of the songs is hard to escape. I think my favorite song of the quintet is the closer, “Souls.” The drums are very subdued and the bass tone is cleaned up somewhat, and Lacey’s singing gives the track an almost dreamy quality. Cool.
INCA BABIES – Swamp Street Soul (Black Lagoon Records, incababies1.bandcamp.com)
I was completely unaware that the storied post-punk band, Inca Babies, had reformed with a couple of the original members, and have been touring and releasing new music for more than a decade. In their original run in the 1980s, they leaned heavily on the punk aesthetic in their music, with raucous and raspy songs. I can’t speak to the few albums they’ve put out since their 2007 reunion, but this latest album is much smoother, jazzier, and poppier, less punk than their earlier music. Maybe it’s mellowing with age, maybe it’s just keeping up with the times, but whatever the reason, Inca Babies continue to remain musically relevant and enjoyable. The album, their first in seven years, opens and closes with the title track (the closer being a “dub” version), and it’s a slow burner of a cool jazz tune mixed with a post-punk vibe. Jazz and dub seem to be nearly as prominent in this latest version of Inca Babies as post-punk. “Dear English Journalists” has a jazzy backbeat, while “Mine of Bones” has the rhythm of a rockabilly tune, but with an easier feel and elements that remind me of Swans from around the time they resumed recording and playing just about a decade ago. I like the swagger of “Walk in the Park.” Though it’s relaxed and easy, you can still hear the post-punk roots. “Bigger Than All of Us” has a driving quality, more so than most of the songs. Keyboards are used as percussion, and the big wall of guitar has a Sonic Youth modal quality. “Windshield Gnat” has the feeling of quiet desperation, in both the sparse instrumentation and in the breathy vocals. I like this record so much that I feel a need to dig into those few albums they released over the last several years and see what else they’ve been up to.
PASS AWAY – Thirty Nine (Suburbia Records, suburbiarecords.bigcartel.com)
Formed in 2013 as a side project, Pass Away has taken on a life of its own. The band play smoothed poppy punk with a strong emotional content. It’s sort of like the 2000s version of emo/pop-punk, but with more of a modern DIY attitude and a softer, gentler, and even effortless sort of sound, like blending in some Nothington and Beach Slang. I adore the quiet mostly acoustic-based “Chic’s Beach,” which opens the album. It’s got a heart-on-your-sleeve singer-songwriter feel. But that song isn’t what’s typical of the record. Right afterward is “Halloween,” a track with an appropriately dark sound in the intro, but which quickly turns into an epic pop punk sound. “Blue Drinks” has a nice combination of pop melody and grunge execution, reminding me a bit of 90s San Diego bands, perhaps even a more sedate version of Rocket From The Crypt. I love “Bushwick,” which starts out as an acoustic waltz, reminding me of something an Irish performer might do in a pub, but it includes full-band sections as well. The lyrics are pretty devastatingly dark, with a chorus of “It’s a miracle I’ve never died in my sleep.” The song is about deep depression and drug and alcohol abuse as coping mechanisms for loss of love. I think this one is my favorite of the album. “Coffin Hands” has the big grand sound of Beach Slang without the teen angst lyrics. “Brooklyn Psychotherapy” is the heaviest track of the LP, with an almost grunge character in parts, alternating with head bobbing pop punk. In the grunge sections there’s awesome use of guitar harmonics, something I’ve always been a sucker for. Some songs are just too smooth for me, though. “Moss Bar,” for instance, sounds like an adult contemporary version of Menzingers type music to me. And, yeah, there’s a Menzingers vibe running through a lot of this. For some people that will be a good thing, for others not so much. I’ll let you decide.
ROBBIE MORÖN – Palooka Haymaker (High End Denim Records, highenddenimrecords.bandcamp.com)
Back in the day, there was a distinct punk sub-genre known as funny punk. The songs were topical, but avoided the serious political issues that permeated so much hardcore music. Humor was as important as speed, power, and melody. Think bands like The Vandals and Doggy Style. Canada’s Robbie Morön continues in this fine tradition, with songs about the pride of a well-manicured lawn, making poor choices in romantic partners, excellent choices in Halloween costumes, and more. Of the seven songs on this mini-LP, four are brand new, one is a cover, and the other two are remastered versions of previously released songs. The songs are nice and varied, but a few are definitely influenced by earlier Green Day. “Bad Taste in Dicks” is one such song, with a great poppy melody, raucous guitars, and suave, easy, tuneful vocals. Another is “Becky Slater,” a song about the weird love triangle of the TV show “The Wonder Years” among Kevin, Winnie, and Becky. The song has a great bass line that induced head bobbing, and the melody and arrangement are top notch. “Not Today” is quicker, and harder, with hints of skate punk mixed in with the pop, not unlike early Offspring, before they hit the big time. The cover is an interesting one. “Bubblegum Bitch” was originally released by Marina and the Diamonds as an EDM pop hybrid. But here it’s a dark pop punk tune, and it works just as well as the original (if not better). I’ve reviewed some of Robbie Morön’s music before, but I think this is the best material from him yet.
VISTA BLUE – A John Waters Christmas Tribute (wearevistablue.bandcamp.com)
As fall turns to winter, thoughts turn from Halloween to…John Waters? Well, to Christmas, for sure. The four songs on this EP are covers that all come from a 2004 Christmas compilation of songs selected by the legendary filmmaker. Starting out the festivities is “Fat Daddy,” originally recorded by Paul “Fat Daddy” Johnson. Where the original is a 60s style song with, shall we say, interesting vocals, the Vistas’ version is bouncy Ramones-core with their patent-pending buzzy guitar sound. The vocals are less soulful, but more tuneful, with cheery harmonies. “Santa! Don’t Pass Me By” was originally recorded as a slow, cheesy, countrified pop tune by Jimmy Donley, but in Vista Blue’s hands it’s all bubbly buzzy pop punk ‘til the cows come home. “Christmas Time Is Coming (A Street Carol)” is next, the original being an a cappella doo wop song by Stormy Weather, the solemn introspective sound of which is at odds with the cheerful lyrics. The Vistas keep the doo wop melody and slower tempo, but there’s no way their guitar tone could ever sound sad. To close out the EP, our intrepid pop punks chose “Sleighbells, Reindeer, and Snow,” as sung by Little Rita Faye Wilson.” The delicate novelty track with banjo, bells, and little girl vocals is transformed into a raging aggressive pop punk tune, and I don’t think Little Rita Faye would survive the mosh pit that’s gonna open up when the punks hear it. The prolific Vista Blue are slowly taking over my music storage space, because this one’s a keeper.
LARS FREDERIKSEN – To Victory (Pirates Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)
Most well known as the guitarist/vocalist for Rancid, Lars Frederiksen also fronts Old Firm Casuals and Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards, and on this solo outing, he plays stripped down versions of songs from these other bands, as well as offering up some covers. From The Bastards, we’ve got “Army of Zombies,” which served as the lead single for this EP. Where the original is manic, this solo version is slowed just a hair, and with acoustic guitar, organ, and tambourine it takes on a different feel, less punk but more urgent and desperate. The other track from The Bastards is “Skunx. The solo version, I feel, is superior, sounding less like drunken street punk and more like storytelling by a singer-songwriter. It’s more moving. The two songs from Old Firm Casuals include “God and Guns” and “Motherland,” the former being a solid acoustic version and the latter is electric and true to the original, but it feels more earnest. The covers include “Tomorrow’s Girls” from the UK Subs, and “Comin’ Home” from KISS. It’s hard to top the fun garage punk bounce of the UK Subs, and Frederiksen doesn’t even try, changing up the song quite a bit. It’s an interesting version, but can’t quite match the joyfulness of the original. As far as the KISS cover, well, I’m not a KISS fan, so anything would be better than their version – but this version with acoustic guitar and piano is fantastic, with a rollicking rock and roll feel worthy of the Stones. Frederiksen began doing the solo thing right before the pandemic, and then it al stopped, but hopefully he’ll pick this up again now that shows are happening again, because I love these solo performances even better than the originals.
STATES OF NATURE – Songs To Sway (Sell the Heart Records, www.selltheheartrecords.com)
States of Nature has kept a fairly low profile, as far as I can tell. Formed in 2018, the “super group” (the band features members of Dead To Me and Everybody Row), the San Francisco area band quietly self-released three four-song EPs over three years. Now the three records are collected together in one place, with two additional new songs, to create the band’s debut LP. States Of Nature will sound both familiar and unique, because they bring together a whole bunch of disparate influences and blend them together into something quite new. I hear elements of DC style emo and post-emo, I hear post-hardcore, I hear 80s post-punk, and I hear power pop and indie rock. Pop hooks vie with hard-edged licks on a lot of the songs, making for a fascinating musical texture that you don’t hear from other bands. I hear bits of Boston’s The Proletariat mixed with San Diego’s Pitchfork in the opening track, “Gale Force” (originally from the “So It Goes” EP). Those are two favorite bands of mine, and the song is a solid favorite of the LP. “Move Like a Ghost” (from the “Collide-A-Scope” EP) has rocking elements that could come from bands like Quicksand, but other sections with more of a chill head bobbing vibe like a DC band like Soulside, and a bridge with a dream-pop like guitar sound and ethereal vocals. “Light and Seed” (from the EP of the same name) has a distinct retro post-punk sound, with edgy guitar tension and shout-spoken vocals. “Infinity” has a cool jazz vibe mixed with a dark rock and roll feel and surges of grunge toward the end. I like the contrast of smooth gliding guitars and intense vocals of “Bloom,” and especially like the explosiveness of this track. The title track from their “Collide-A-Scope” brings some excellent surf-guitar to the mix, along with post-hardcore and Dischord-like revolution summer emo. The two new songs are “Carry Along” and “Old Trances, Old Foes.” These two songs fit in really well with the rest. “Carry Along” blends Fugazi-like sounds, post-punk, and post-hardcore in a song that’s smooth, head bobbing, and edgy all at the same time. “Old Trances, Old Foes” is downright jangly pop with a fuzzed yet breezy sound. I don’t think I’ve ever found a single band before that’s taken all of my favorite genres and put them all into all their songs, but States Of Nature do just that. This is a phenomenal release.
THE DODOS – Grizzly Peak (Polyvinyl Records, www.poluyvinylrecords.com)
Music veterans The Dodos have released their eighth LP, and it’s both simple and complex at the same time. As a duo, the band’s arrangements are necessarily fairly bare and spartan. But the songs are still intricate, instrumentals and vocals intertwining in opposing melodic lines to create something quite lovely. The strong vocals remind me of those of OMD, in a tenor range with that hint of tremolo. The music combines the feeling of math rock with retro pop sounds – math rock in the unusual rhythms and shifting time signatures. I love the swirling opening of “Annie,” and the intricate rhythms, the shifting between straight time and waltz time. And the percussion break toward the end is unbalancing in the best way. Strings play a prominent role in most of the songs, not only as background but to add strength to percussion and emphasis to vocal melodies. I love how the drums and violins play against each other in “With a Guitar,” somewhat tribal rhythms contrasting with the smoothness of the vocals. The song seems to be about a grudge, with a chorus that asks, “You make me feel small / Does it make you feel big too?” and answers “I guess I’ll have to fight you with a guitar.” Understated is a perfect description for “The Atlantic,” quiet and subdued yet there’s a subtle intensity; the clear vocals sound ever so solemn. “Quiet Voices” is, I think, my favorite track of the album. The urgent intricate plucked guitar against the relaxed floating vocals is gorgeous, and there’s a periodic rising noise and intensity that adds just the right amount of tension. The Dodos appear to be on tour this fall in support of the new LP, and I think I’m going to have to go check them out live. That’s how much I enjoyed this LP.
THE PULSEBEATS – Lookin’ Out (FOLC Records, www.folcrecords.es)
The Pulsebeats have been around for a decade, but because they’re based in Spain, I’ve never heard of them before. That’s a shame, because this is a banger of a record! It’s vaguely Ramones-core, but way better than that genre implies. The Pulsebeats incorporate elements of garage, pop punk, and power pop into their songs, injecting them with tons of energy and enthusiasm. It’s infectious, too, because these songs are going to make you want to jump around like a mad person. While most of the songs have a strong pop influence, “(She Sings Like) Joey Ramone has elements of Naked Raygun’s sound, a big Chicago punk rock feel and vocals reminiscent of Jeff Pezzati in his prime. I love the strong driving beat of “Reason To Believe,” which reminds me a bit of Jeff Burke bands like Marked Men and Radioactivity. “241259” is a weird name for a track, but it’s a powerful one, reminding me of punk’n’roll bands like DFMK, but maybe a bit poppier. “Cover Girl” adds in a bunch of wonderful guitar jangle, And “Coma State,” even with its manic sound, reminds me a bit of The Mr. T Experience in the vocals, and the surf guitar break at the end is fantastic. Imagine taking The Buzzcocks, speeding things up, adding even more energy, and you’ll have an idea of how good this new LP from The Pulsebeats is.
SUNTITLE – In a Dream (Know Hope Records, www.knowhoperecords.com)
Do you like emo? Do you like post-hardcore? Do you like when the two genres cross over? If so, you may enjoy Suntitle. The band, whose members are scattered about the northeast corner of the US, play music that’s big, epic, and hazy. There are elements of 90s and 2000s alternative rock, but the band temper the more commercial aspects of that genre with loads of reverb and earnest vocals. I like the way the band grunges up what could be just another attempt to replicate a popular sound that filled airwaves a couple of decades ago, especially on a song like “Burning Down a Denny’s,” with tough, grumbling guitars and bass. And even the harmonized vocals, which can sometimes ruin things when you’re trying to sound hard and tough, are done well here. You can hear that on a lot of the songs, but especially on “Selfish,” which has some great guitar tone that gives the song a lonely sound, especially at the start. It goes well with the lyrics that cry out, “You’re such a fucking asshole / That’s why you’ll always be alone.” As heavy as many of these tracks are, the bombast of “Heaven’s Gate” beats them all, even as it alternates between huge and quieter, smoother sections. I particularly like the closing track, “Church Bells.” On this one, things are tempered further; the track is no less epic than the rest, but it’s calmer, more introspective, more solemn, and even a bit dreamy. This isn’t a genre I usually care for, and I enjoyed Suntitle’s previous EP a little more, but the band have released an album I’d be happy listening to again.
SWANSEA SOUND – Live At The Rum Puncheon (Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records, www.hhbbtm.com)
Swansea Sound is yet another band formed in the boring days of the pandemic “lockdown,” when there was nothing else to do for many musicians. Catenary Wires members Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey are joined by Huw Williams of Pooh Sticks join forces to sing self-aware songs about being in an indie band. “Corporate Indie Band” is one such song, about people deciding to form a new band that cranks out indie hits. “Indies of the World” is an anthem calling for all the indie people of the world to add their own contributions to the scene, in true DIY fashion, “in forty-five revolutions.” There’s even a song called “The Poohsticks,” speaking of self-referential. There are fun songs like “I Sold My Soul On Ebay,” which speaks about the desperate need for money and attention of people who put things up for sale on services like the auction site or on Spotify and YouTube. One track that stands out as different is “Freedom of Speech,” with a rollicking yet smoothed out Rolling Stones feel, and lyrics about the aforementioned right, and how some people don’t understand what that right means or entails. Musically, the band isn’t creating anything unique or groundbreaking, but it’s decently solid indie rock. I don’t know if Swansea Sound is going to last in the long run, but the pandemic sure has given us some decent stuff to listen to.
TIGHTWIRE – "Anyone But You" EP (Red Scare Industries, redscareindustries.bandcamp.com)
Two brand new songs just came out from Minneapolis’ pop punks Tightwire, just in time for their return to touring. If you’re a fan of pop punk, this is a release you’re going to want to hear. The band is aptly named, because they walk the tightwire, carefully balancing between raucous pop punk and smoother pop sounds. The title track has exactly that sound that Tightware own, poppy but hard and raucous at the same time. The “B” side is an acoustic version of “Spell On Me,” from the 2018 LP “Six Feet Deep.” Where the original is typical Tightware fare (that is, up-tempo fun pop punk), the acoustic version is a little bit slower, and takes on a much more emotional feel. And, as good as the original is, the acoustic version is just more heartfelt and satisfying. Tightwire have kept their perfect balance.
CITY MOUSE – Magnitude (It’s Alive Records, www.itsaliverecords.com)
New music from City Mouse is always a reason to celebrate! Despite having been a thing for nearly two decades, the recorded output from Miski Dee Rodriguez and her rotating cast of band mates has been way too thin, consisting of a single LP and a handful of EPs and split singles. This latest release is a three song EP that leaves me wanting more. The title track leads things off, and will sound the most familiar to longtime City Mouse followers. It’s got the same sort of mid-tempo pace and chord progressions that characterize many City Mouse songs, and of course Miski’s amazing vocals. But it’s the departure from the norm of the other two tracks that I really love. “Sweet Heat” has a more urgent desperate sound than is typical for City Mouse, and may be my new favorite song of Miski’s, about the inferno of a breakup. The final track of the trio, “Get Out of Here,” has a cool retro cinematic rock and roll sound, like something from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and is a lot of fun. New music from City Mouse is always a reason to celebrate; I just wish we could celebrate more often.
IT’S KARMA IT’S COOL - Homesick For Our Future Destinations (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
It’s Karma It’s Cool is a mouthful of a band name, but I’ll put up with it, because the UK band play a quality blend of power pop and modern indie, with great pop melodies and lush indie arrangements and production. The guitars jangle with a lovely soft tone, and the vocals harmonize gorgeously. It’s hard to pick out favorites, because there are many good songs here, but I’ll give special mention to “Absent Transient,” which has a great pop bounce along with ethereal dreaminess from the reverb and synths in the mix. “Dream Big Little Giant” is a peppier track than most of the others, and it’s got a big inspirational sound and hefty pop effervescence. While I wouldn’t call “Coffee Cup Circles” raucous, it’s the most rambunctious track of the album, appropriate for a song about caffeinated life. I like the energy of this one, and it’s got that great indie meets classic power pop vibe that makes this LP stand out. A few songs didn’t do it as much for me. “Playing Brave” has too much commercial pop sound for my liking. I’m not all that taken with “Holy Toledo!” either, the closest the band get to a ballad here. It, too, sounds more like radio friendly adult contemporary pop than anything indie. And “Guest on a TV Talk Show,” though I like the breeziness of it, the arrangement is a little too smooth for my tastes. Don’t let these few songs deter you. For the most part It’s Karma It’s Cool provide quality tunes on their sophomore full-length LP.
POSTAGE (Dirt Cult Records, www.dirtcultrecords.com)
After releasing a couple of flexis and a split single with Mikey Erg, Postage presents their debut LP, collecting together those previous releases plus a couple of extra tracks. The Albany quartet of punk veterans are well placed with Dirt Cult Records, who are returning to their pop punk roots with this LP. The label has been branching out a lot lately, with noise-punk and garage releases, but this is their bread and butter: Awesome Fest and Fest style pop punk. Postage play up-tempo tunes that are aggressive and abrasive in just the right ways, with lots of speedy lyrics and hooks popping left and right. Many of these songs remind me of Arizona’s late lamented Rumspringer, a great band that ended under difficult circumstances. Rumor has it Postage members had never listened to Rumspringer before writing and recording these songs, which makes it all the more remarkable. A highlight of the LP for me is “Return to Sender,” one of the quicker tempo songs, with great rhythmic and melodic changes in it. “Onward” has some powerful Motorhead-like guitar work going on, even with its poppy chorus. And “Smitten,” which closes the LP, has powerful forward momentum, chugging along with garage-like power guitars, but loaded with pop goodness. If you’re a fan of this sort of pop punk, and especially if you, like me, miss Rumspringer, gives this a spin. You won’t regret it.
THE SLACKERS – Windowland b/w I Almost Lost You – Pirates Press Records, www.piratespressrecords.com)
Rock steady/ska/reggae band The Slackers are back with another single, with Pirates Press doing their usual bang-up job on unique presentation. This time out it’s a one-sided 12” that looks like a picture disc, but isn’t. Instead, the image is printed on the vinyl, and includes transparent windows to go along with the first track title. The two songs here aren’t as dynamic and exciting as the “Nobody’s Listening” single I previously reviewed. But “Windowland” is a solid rock steady track, mid-tempo and guaranteed to make you want to dance. The over-the-top vocals and horns are a hoot, and the miscellaneous percussion instruments give this a nice retro lounge sound. “I Almost Lost You” is an interesting track, mixing a relaxed reggae feel with a 50s doo-wop melody. I’m not a big ska or reggae fan, but The Slackers are plenty fun.
JAMES SULLIVAN – Light Years (Stardumb Records, www.stardumbrecords.com)
This is the debut album from Londoner James Sullivan, who also fronts the power pop trio More Kicks. But this solo effort isn’t power pop. It’s ironic that Sullivan shares a name with a mysterious American singer-songwriter from the 1970s. Jim Sullivan produced some psych-folk-rock records of note in the 1970s, then vanished in Mexico at age 34. The music from the present James Sullivan, too, has elements in common with his namesake, with tinges of psych and folk mixed in with the lovely light pop music. There’s a sparkly quality to the music, bright and shiny, even with hints of post-punk in some of the songs, such as the bass heavy “Guided” and the wonderful “Lea Bridge” with its spoken word narration. The combination of acoustic guitar and synths on “It Won’t Do You Harm” is a perfect example of the psych-folk sound, very understated and colorful. I adore the blend of psych-folk and indie pop on songs like “You Kept My Heart Alive,” which uses violin quite effectively, along with the fuzzed up guitar. I like the rolling feel of “Get Our Sense Away,” and the delicate acoustic “Cruel Trick To Play” with glockenspiel solo is adorable. “Totally Bored” is an outlier on this LP, and a standout. It’s more punk rock than anything else, gritty guitars and bass underlying the rock and roll melody, with desperate sounding vocals recorded with some lo-fi distortion. This LP may not be what More Kicks fans expected, as it’s a lot more laid back and easy going than that trio. But it’s definitely an excellent and worthy debut.
VISTA BLUE – New Nightmares (wearevistablue.bandcamp.com)
Vista Blue’s driving force, Mike Patton, is a big fan of both horror movies and seasonally appropriate record releases, so the two combine together on this latest release from the prolific band. Four new songs of buzzy guitar-fueled pop punk, complete with synths, harmonized vocals, and sweet melodies appear on this EP, each song themed around a different eerie flick. “Where Do You Wanna Sleep?” is the closest thing the Vistas get to a ballad, with lovely Beach Boys vocal harmonies and retro melody. It’s an homage to a scene from “Halloween III,” in which two characters are in a hotel room, and one suggests he can sleep in the car or get another room. “Where do you want to sleep, Dr. Challis?” she asks. “That’s a dumb question, Miss Grimbridge,” comes the reply. “I’ll Be True” is a haunting tale of falling in love with the murderous character from the mirror in “Candyman.” I like “Magic on This Train,” a reference to the 1980 slasher film, “Terror Train,” yet my favorite of the EP is the solemn pop punk of “Ya Bang!” The dark synths are gorgeous, while the pop bounce is a lot of fun. This one’s from “Friday The 13th Part VI,” a reference to a scene in which a deputy points his gun with new laser sight and says, “Wherever the red dot goes, ya bang!” Vista Blue is always seasonally appropriate, no matter the time of year.
ALLEYS AND GANGWAYS – Long Shot (linktr.ee/Alleysandgangways)
Chicago’s Alleys and Gangways’ sophomore release is a three-song EP of mid-tempo pop punk. One of the cool things about the band’s songs is the stratification of sound, in which instruments and multiple vocals layer on top of each other, sometimes in unison, sometime in harmony, sometime in competing melodic lines. Though the songs are pop punk, and there are plenty of opportunities for gang vocals, another thing I like about Alleys and Gangways is the attention to melody. Even with the gritty and snotty vocals, the melodies are strong. The three songs are diverse yet cohesive enough to tell they’re from the same band, with “Catch Your Summer” having a big epic sound, “Halo” having a mix of power pop jangle and Americana lope, and “Do It for the Butterflies” jumping back and forth between speedier harder punk and more of a chugga-chugga mid-tempo pace. This last has some nice vocal dueling going on, too. This makes me want to go back and check out their debut.
BLACK SWAN DIVE BOMB – Light the Match, Ignite the Flame (www.facebook.com/blackswandivebomb)
Black Swan Dive Bomb was born in Detroit, Michigan in the midst of the pandemic, in the summer of 2020. “Light the Match, Ignite the Flame” is the band’s recording debut, a four-song EP. Like other bands that have arisen from the Motor City, Black Swan Dive Bomb is deeply rooted in the rock and roll tradition. 70s hard rock, garage, and punk form the base from which their songs spring forth, filled with attitude, swagger, and anger. These genres blend seamlessly into a powerful combination that delivers a punch. My favorite song of the quartet of tracks has to be “God Hates America,” the most political of the bunch, dark and powerful. I like the raw energy of this debut.
SWIM CAMP – Fishing In A Small Boat (Know Hope Records, www.knowhoperecords.com)
Swim Camp, the alter ego of Tom Morris, has been making music since 2015. “Fishing In A Small Boat” represents Morris’ fourth full-length outing under the Swim Camp moniker, and I think we’re gonna need a bigger boat. I say this because the music is expansive, big and dreamy. These songs transport you to a different state of mind, as if it were a real place. One could drift away, floating on wafts of air, in a half-waking state. These are the sorts of images and feelings conjured by the thirteen songs. There are vaguely pop song structures and thick, rich arrangements. Strategic use of distortion in places gives the sense of experiencing the songs through a gauzy filter. Individually, I love all of these songs. In particular, “Race Track” is a lazy lolling waltz time song that feels both intimate and lush. I love the eerie and lonesome sounds used in “Sift,” a song that’s recorded lo-fi, and creates a dense and delicious wall of sound. And the lo-fi piano and tentative vocals of “A Different Kind of Sleep” makes me want to hug someone or go into a corner alone and cry. I especially love the effects used in the piano recording, making it sound like an old tape that’s been stretched and doesn’t play back well, with all the ambient noises that were left in. I did say “individually,” though. Because even though I love these songs, as an album, it’s too much. Many of the songs are in 3/4 time, and they’re uniformly ballad-like, crawling at an unhurried pace. The sound is too monolithic. I’d like there to be maybe a bit more variety, but I do like the hypnagogic aesthetic.
THE BELLTOWERS – Magnetic (Kool Kat Musik, www.koolkatmusik.com)
60’s British Invasion pop rock meets indie on this latest LP from The BellTowers, their fourth full-length outing. The guitars have that classic retro jangle sound, and the melodies sparkle with bits of psychedelic influence. The LP opens with a strong cut, “Sunshine Nursery Rhymes.” It’s got a throbbing rhythm courtesy of the bass, a mix of those jangly guitars and some rocking distortion tone, and a big organ that heats things up. Sadly, the organ isn’t used as prominently on more songs, because I thought it was pretty effective. But many other songs still stand out, like “Perfume 22,” in which the guitar tone is perfect. Some of the songs get a little garage-like, too, such as “Annabel Lee,” with its darker sound that reminds me of a favorite band from back in the early 80s, The Vertebrats. And “Wait” has an even tougher rock and roll sound with a bit of 60s rock’n’blues in it. Though these songs are rooted deeply in genres of the past, they sound fresh and even have hints of modern indie. There are unique touches, too, such as the arrangement of “She Reappears,” which uses violin to embellish the instrumentation on the chorus.
CUMGIRL8 – RIPcumgirl8 (DERO Arcade, deroarcade.bandcamp.com)
The trio known as cumgirl8 describe themselves as “a sex-positive alien amoeba entity.” Besides being a band, they have also released a fashion collection last year to benefit New York’s Ali Forney Center, which helps homeless LGBTQ youth. The title of this EP refers to the fact that the band was kicked off instagram for being “too sexual.” This is the band’s sophomore release, coming about a year and a half after their self-titled debut LP. The four songs are vaguely punk, but more reminiscent of the massively creative post-punk era of the late 70s and early 80s. “Pluck Me” opens the EP with a dark post-punk track that seems to be about giving away total control, yielding to the power of someone else. “Go Away” is next with a cool bouncy sound that’s part pop, part lounge music, part punk. The bridge gets really spooky and spacey before the song resolves and ends. “Bugs” jangles darkly, but it’s the final track that has me in love with cumgirl8 the most. “I Wanna Be” is weird in the best way, with strange sound effects, a dance beat, and deadpan spoken word vocals that remind me of the band “The Normal” and their “song” “Warm Leatherette.” The lyrics are all the things “I wanna be”, pretty much anything but one’s self. It’s not RIP cumgirl8, it’s long live cumgirl8!
DEERHOOF – Actually, You Can (Joyful Noise Recordings, www.joyfulnoiserecordings.com)
I don’t listen to Deerhoof nearly enough. Every time I do, I realize how good they are. Their latest LP is no different. Or, rather, all of their LPs are significantly different, and that’s one of the things that make them so amazing. Deerhoof don’t sound like anyone else; they’re quite unique. The band blends pop melodies with experimental arrangements, creating something that challenges as well as entertains. There isn’t a single track on this album that I don’t find fascinating, and the tracks are incredibly varied. “Be Unbarred, O Ye Gates of Hell” opens the LP, with a classical sounding song that, nonetheless, has a martial rhythm. I love the jangly “We Grew, and We Are Astonished.” It has a minimalist melody and lyrics that repeat “Are you ready to go straight to video?” The Latin-influenced “Scarcity Is Manufactured” has a party atmosphere, and I really enjoy how “Plant Thief” plays with time signatures and the challenges the concept of a song structure. I also like the peel of the guitars, used to give the effect of alarm bells. “Epic Love Poem” manages to effectively bring together elements of funk, top 40 pop, and experimental avant-garde. One consistency that ties these tracks together is the soft, smooth, understated vocals of Satomi Matsuzaki. As out there as the instrumentals can sometimes get, her vocals are always a calming element. I adore the variety, the creativity, the glistening guitar tone, and, well, just about everything about this album. I really need to listen to Deerhoof more often.
DUMMY – Mandatory Enjoyment (Trouble In Mind Records, www.troubleinmindrecs.com)
After releasing a couple of cassette EPs last year, Dummy now presents their debut full-length LP. The LA band play music that’s reminiscent of Stereolab and the Krautrock bands that influenced them. There’s plenty of rhythmic droning and electronic ambience, but there’s also elements of psych, dream pop, and ambient music mixed in. Even as the beats chug along like an unstoppable train, the instrumentals and vocals float dreamily along the glittering and glimmering rails. The LP opens with the ethereal “Protostar,” a short introductory track with heavenly harmonized vocals, ambient electronics quietly throbbing, and spacey synths injecting a science fiction atmosphere at the end. I really like “Fissured Ceramics,” a track with a pounding beat, scintillating electronics, pulsing guitars, and vocals that waft above it all. “Punk Product #4” isn’t punk, but the guitars do play a more prominent role in this track, which nevertheless still has the driving Krautrock style rhythm and lovely pop melody. “Tapestry Distortion” is psychedelic and mesmerizing in its minimalist instrumentation, and the guitar feedback at the end brings a sublime aching tension to the piece. The penultimate track of the album, “Aluminum In Retrograde,” breaks the mold, as more of a cross between ambient and lounge music, moody instrumentals and sensual vocals intertwining. And “Atonal Poem” closes the album with a minimalist instrumental pop song, melodic lines repeating, subtly throbbing, and vocals acting as another instrument. What an enchanting debut.
JAGUWAR – Gold (Tapete Records, www.tapeterecords.de)
One part dance pop, one part dream pop, the songs on this LP are sprawling epics of ambience, music full of shimmer, yet with a big dance beat. I like some songs better than others; some are just too much like commercial pop music to me. But others spark something in me, like the opening track, “Battles.” It’s brash and bright, with synth sounds that remind me of early Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and a melody worthy of a pop punk band. I also enjoy “St. Lucia Island,” the opening of which has the ambient sound of nature juxtaposed against a hard dance-synth beat that reminds me of The Human League, but with a darker industrial edge to it. The song resolves into an interesting mélange of 70s AM pop and the dark industrial pop sounds. The track grows huge and epic, but then at the climax, it gets quiet and ends with a quaint music box vibe. A lot of these tracks are like little epics of music, grand vast soundscapes made for dancing. Like I said, sometimes there’s just too much commercial pop in the mix for my taste, like on “Monuments” or the title track. But this is an interesting unique blend of genres here.
VARIOUS – Weenorama: High End Denim Halloween Sampler (High End Denim Records, linktr.ee/highenddenimrecords)
‘Tis the Spooky Season, and High End Denim Records has pulled together a cassette mini-LP of appropriately eerie punk tunes for your vigil waiting for the Great Pumpkin. Based out of Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, High End Denim has selections from a variety of Canuck punks, and though the bands all have their own styles, there’s a common theme of darkness in the music, and stories of youthful Halloween antics and scary adventures. The song kicking things off is the dark “Jerkolantern,” contributed by the label’s hometown heroes, The Offsailers. They reminisce about being thirteen and trick or treating way too late at night, alone, and being chased by older kids who steal your candy. Halloween can be really traumatic for a kid. Robbie Morön sings the tale of the “Hysqvarna Hairdo,” in which the stylist takes “a little off the top” with the title brand chainsaw, putting Sweeny Todd to shame. I like the speedy guitar licks that are just punk enough and not too metallic. “Pantyhose Alien” is a hilarious song about costumes on the cheap, squishing one’s face in your mom’s nylons. It’s from Burning Nickels, and the guitars growl and howl, as the drums pound and pummel. Boo Radley’s got a pretty straightforward skate punk sound, with furiously metallic guitars, as they sing about Michael Myers, just in time for the new movie. Gruff vocals and fast and loud melody are hallmarks of The Current State in their song, “Pumpkin Man,” that soulless being with a pumpkin for a head that terrorizes the town. I love Robbie Morön’s second track of the tape, “I Wanna Be Sexy (for Halloween).” Of all the songs it’s the bounciest, coming across like a grittier version of the Mr. T Experience. The cassette ends with “Hey Laurie,” a straight up pop punk tune from Boltergeist, sounding like something you would hear at The Fest, and it, too, is a favorite. While these DIY bands aren’t going to set the world on fire, they’re going to give you a good time as you bob for apples.
HEART & LUNG – Twistin’ the Knife Away (Red Scare Industries, heartandlung.bandcamp.com)
We’ve been waiting almost a year for this new LP from Cleveland’s Heart & Lung that Red Scare boss Toby Jeg teased about last November when he rereleased the band’s debut LP. And the wait has been worth it. It’s a half hour of top notch Midwest pop punk, with the band even tighter and the sound even stronger than that debut. There’s plenty of variety in the sounds, too, to keep the listener engaged; it’s not just Ramones-core or Fest pop punk, ruts many bands can get into. There are harmonies, call and response verses, upbeat pop melodies, and loads of jangly guitar. A couple of the songs stand out particularly for me. I love “Headache,” an understated jangly song that veers more toward an indie sound than punk, a song that seems to be about suffering from depression. “I’ve got a permanent headache,” the song says, “that I can never get away from / A permanent anchor on my neck, man I’m a sinking ship. / I’m having pills for breakfast now / Missing out by staying in / A permanent bummer of a time.” I always enjoy the feeling of bummer lyrics contrasted with bright music. “Never Come Home” is an absolute favorite, reminding me a whole lot of Matt Caskitt’s songs that he’s done both with his band Caskitt and with Matt Caskitt & The Breaks. How I interpret the lyrics is that it’s about regret and wanting to turn back the clock to have more time to right wrongs in a relationship. It’s sung and played with heartfelt emotion. The closing track, “Earth, Wind, and Water,” is a huge epic that’s a perfect way to end a set or the LP. While those are the highlights, there isn’t a bad song on this LP, and they don’t all sound the same, a huge win for pop punk! Definitely worth the wait.
SARAH MCQUAID – The St. Burnyan Sessions (sarahmcquaid.bandcamp.com)
Sarah McQuaid had big plans for 2020, including a massive tour that would have seen her play more than 80 shows over as four month period. Like so many musicians, her plans were dashed by the global pandemic. Live performance is so important for some artists, because the emotional experience can be so very different from a studio recording. So the idea to record a live show without an audience was born out of necessity and made possible by a successful crowd funding campaign. The venue was St. Burnyan’s, the local parish church in McQuaid’s adopted Cornish hometown, where she sings in the church choir. And, being a “live” set, the songs are primarily culled from McQuaid’s entire catalog, though there are some new songs included, as well. Since this is just McQuaid performing, the arrangements are sparse and subdued, featuring just acoustic or electric guitar, piano, or drum. And in one case, there are no instruments at all. That case is the a cappella opening track, “Sweetness and Pain.” The ancient sounding folk melody, sung hesitantly, and the solemn ambience of the empty church, make a powerful combination in this song that likens the sweetness and resulting pain of dangerous temptations with the sweetness of berries and the pain of the bush’s thorns. The church gives these recordings a gorgeous sound, and the live one-take performance makes the songs feel more “in the moment.” One favorite (besides that opener) is “The Sun Goes On Rising,” which uses acoustic guitar to create a song that reminds me of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” “One Sparrow Down,” from McQuaid’s most recent studio LP, is still a favorite, though Sarah’s own attempt at a “meow” at the end is a poor stand-in for her own cat that made a cameo in the studio. I adore the version of “Time To Love” presented here; it’s so tentative and uncertain, so bare and vulnerable. And “In Darby Cathedral” is a fan favorite for a reason; it’s certainly become a favorite of mine, a solemn lament. It’s also the lone track that goes beyond the live recording ethos, using multi-tracking in the vocal round at the end of the song. The new material recorded for this session includes a beautiful rendition of the jazz standard, “Autumn Leaves,” and “Rabbit Hills,” written by Michael Chapman, with whom McQuaid has worked in the past. Chapman’s wife commissioned McQuaid to sing the song as a birthday gift to him. I enjoyed Sarah McQuaid’s last studio album, but this “live” album heightens the sense of vulnerability and beauty.
IKE REILLY – Because the Angels (Rock Ridge Music, www.rockridgemusic.com)
This represents the prolific Ike Reilly’s eighth studio album, chock full of songs that all revolve around folksy themes. There’s singer-songwriter fare, Bob Dylan influenced songs, Americana, outright country, gospel, and jazzed up folk. Reilly is one of those old musical characters who has bounced around in various jobs, picking up inspirations along the way. He’s been a doorman and a gravedigger, among other jobs. The album opens with “Little Messiahs,” a song that begins with a Dylan-esque acoustic feel and adds in steel pedal guitar for a deep country flair. It’s a song about old school populist politicians who take advantage of the working class and rig elections. It also seems to reference Donald Trump’s surprise win in 2016, and how his team immediately sprang into action to put in place their oppressive policies. This diverse record includes blues-rock (“Ashes to Ashes:”), cowboy songs that tell stories (“The Muhammad Ali Museum”), gospel (“F@#$ the Good Old Days”), and more. My favorite track of the album is “Trick of the Light,” that jazzed up number, hints of ska from the horns and a great poppy beat. The song is a dark one of family dysfunction, relatives screwing each other over, hurting feelings, and spending years not speaking. The trombone solo at the bridge is a lot of fun, and the bouncy melody belies the hurtful lyrics. Many of these songs are about the misery of existence. “The Failure of St, Michael,” for example, speaks to the endless cycle of pain and depression in what feels like it must be a small town. Dysfunctional relationships occurring in the shadow of a bar and the main employer, a drug factory, are recounted. The failure of our institutions (parochial school, for one, gets mentioned) is embodied in the verse, “Well the arc angel St. Michael stood guard at the door / Looking holy and dangerous / Leaning on his sword / It’s written he’ll protect us / From Satan and his snares / But Charlie says he hasn’t seen St. Michael much around here.” One interesting fact about Reilly that I would not have guessed from listening to his music is that he’s from the far north Chicago suburb of Libertyville, certainly not a hotbed of country-folk-blues-jazz-gospel-honky-tonk. Reilly’s bio mentions that he’s the “King of Music Row,” which consists of his humble home in an unassuming street. He’s certainly good at telling stories with his music, worthy of his noble title.
THE HIGH 70s – Glitter Box (thehigh70s.bandcamp.com)
The 70s in this bands name doesn’t refer to the temperature, it refers, in part, to an era of music in which they find inspiration. Though they could have called themselves “The High 70s to Low 80s,” because they have as much early 80s influence in their songs, if not more. Imagine mixing the rock music of the 70s that inspired grunge with electro-dance-pop and goth of the 80s, and that’s what “Glitter Box” sounds like. There are varying levels of these in the different songs. The title track, which opens the LP, is very much a 70s proto-grunge tune, though tempered slightly by power pop. “Invisible Wall” is much the same, with a hard rocking aesthetic and power pop sensibility. “Manipulation” has a 70s rock vibe to it, but with some early 80s guitar licks going on. “Astro Van,” too, has a retro rock’n’roll feel in the guitar and melody, but with an 80s bass line. There are songs that are very 80s new wave, like the dark and synth-heavy “We Have Nothing,” “Accidents Never Happen,” and the new wave goth track, “Freak House.” I don’t know. I like when bands try new things, and blending these genres certainly is different. But I don’t know that they really work together, so this album doesn’t work for me.
ON THE CINDER – Sedentary Escape (Flower House Records, flowerhouserecords.storenvy.com)
Buffalo trio On The Cinder was in the midst of writing their third full-length LP when the pandemic hit, and as everything closed down, they decided to close down work on the LP in order to write something that would reflect the new reality. The name, “Sedentary Escape,” reflects a need to find liberation from the imposed inactivity of pandemic lockdowns. The resulting seven songs on this mini-LP are both melodic and chaotic, with pop sensibilities and hardcore power. They string together to relate a narrative of the entire experience of the last year and a half, with songs such as “It Begins,” “Illusions of Progress,” “Past, Present, No Future,” “Bottomed Out,” and more. One favorite is “Illusions of Progress,” a speedy hardcore track that’s nevertheless incredibly melodic. In some parts it reminds me of early Descendents, and it’s got a slower, very dark bridge toward the end. “Bottomed Out” has a great 90s post-hardcore sound, and it flows seamlessly into “Now What?” a track that blends a NOMEANSNO inspired bass, a passionately irate spoken word rant, and a booming melodic hardcore chorus. But I think my favorite is “Only After…,” which is complex and goes through many transformations, with pop punk sections, hardcore sections, dark post hardcore sections, and has some great gang vocals and harmonies. Though they’ve been a band since 2013, this is my first exposure to On The Cinder. From this record, I find them to be a dynamic and exciting band, and I hope to see them live some day.
PIP BLOM – Welcome Break (Heavenly Recordings, www.heavenlyrecordings.com)
Pip Blom is a Dutch quartet whose debut LP came out in 2019. They extensively toured through Europe, including playing major festivals such as Glastonbury. Then everything stopped, just as it did for every band around the world. Now they’re back with their sophomore LP, the appropriately titled, “Welcome Back.” The band is named for its front person, Pip Blom, who still lives with her parents and her brother and band mate, Tender Blom. They play light, catchy indie pop songs that have a somewhat grungy edge, though not too grungy. The eleven songs are uniformly bright sounding, with Blom’s sparkling vocals leading the way. “It Should Have Been Fun” is one of the best tracks of the album, with a minimalist melody, the instrumentals subtly driving the song during the quieter verses and exploding on the choruses. “Keep It Together” is the most lithe track of the album, reminding me of 90s indie pop bands. The band’s formula of lighter verses and heavier choruses is maintained, with a very similar overall feel to “It Should Have Been Fun,” though the guitars seem to have a little more jangle here. It ends somewhat abruptly, an unfortunate production choice. A couple of things bother me about this LP. First, it’s too even-keeled. The songs are mostly the same tempo or close. It stays very formulaic, with quiet verses and bigger choruses. And some of the songs sound deliberately poppy in a way that sounds like they’re trying to appeal to a mainstream audience, rather than the indie crowd. The songs are pleasant enough, and Blom’s vocals are quite engaging. The band certainly sounds enthusiastic, but there also seems to be something artificial to it. I’ve got mixed feelings.
The Raptors, a band from Los Angeles, seem to be of two minds about the kind of band they want to be. When I first started listening to the album, in the first track, “Lost That Life,” I heard grunge-influenced rock and roll, similar to the sort of music that The Dirty Nil play. The second track, “Jurassic California,” seems to be smoother “alternative” rock music with a bit of emo-pop edge to it, similar to what a lot of bands were doing in the 2000s. The first track was OK; the second one turned me off. Thankfully, that’s not the bulk of the album. Instead, most of the tracks are hard edgy pop punk mixed with a street punk sensibility and a hint of glam. The band is tight and proficient, the songs are loaded with melodic content, the guitars scream just as hard as the vocals, and the drums pound furiously. Gang vocals abound. The interesting thing is that while the execution on these songs reminds me a lot of the sort of bands you find in your local dive bar playing original punk music, the melodies are generally more nuanced, with elements of classic rock and power pop. It makes for an interesting sound, and one that I like. Favorite songs include “Good Guys,” which I can imagine is a crowd pleaser at live shows, with the big sing-along sections. I like, too, “Coastal Spirits,” a more up-tempo track with a bright poppy melody and big harmonized vocals on the chorus. The closing track, “Lighthouse,” is a sort of compromise between the styles of the first two tracks and the rest, with some big pop punk gang vocals and melody, but played as a darker emo pop sort of song. Raptor has the chops and the ability to write some good pop punk that stands out among the crowd of bands out there. I’d like it if they focused more on that and less on the grunge and emo.
WE ARE SCIENTISTS – Huffy (100% Records, www.100-percent.co.uk)
Bright, sparky indie rock meets power pop, with hints of glam. That’s a succinct description of We Are Scientists, a US band that, nevertheless, has more popularity in the UK than at home. That’s a shame, because this is good music. I particularly love the opening track, “You’ve Lost Your Shit,” with an upbeat driving tempo in the bass, and a slower gliding tempo in the melody and vocals. It reminds me a little bit of the sunny band toyGuitar, one of my favorites. The band is made up of a core including guitarist/vocalist Keith Murray and bassist Chris Cain, Drummer Keith Carne has been with the band since 2013, so I think that makes him a full-fledged member, as well, even if the band’s Wikipedia entry says he “joins the band in the studio and for live appearances.” That’s a band member to me. For a three-piece they have an enormous sound, thick and luscious, bright and sparkly. “Handshake Agreement takes the guitar dazzle a step further, when on the bridge, there’s some overdubbing of a gorgeous, shining guitar duel, short as it is. I like the funky bass and retro post punk feel of “I Cut My Own Hair;” and the synths and tribal beats that open “Sentimental Education” are compelling. As the latter song gets going, it becomes another luminous pop number, with the synths adding bits of dreaminess, even as the melody, guitars, and vocals strive to brighten the mood. We Are Scientists have a ton of upcoming tour dates this fall and winter. Sadly, they’re all in the UK and Europe. Hopefully their own countrymen will wake up to their musical brilliance and they’ll be able to book a solid US tour sooner than later. Let’s make that happen. Listen to and buy this album. I’m pretty sure you’ll love it as much as I do.
THE CONTROL FREAKS – Get Some Help (Dirty Water Records, www.dirtywaterrecords.co.uk)
The UK’s Dirty Water Records has become one of the few remaining bastions of raw rock and roll music. Their roster includes some great bands playing garage and punk-and-roll music. And The Control Freaks are no exception. How could it be, led by none other than Greg Lowry, he of bands such as Supercharger, The Rip Offs, The Infections, and the Zodiac Killers. The LP contains thirteen blasts of intense fun, so it’s lucky right there. The songs are gritty and primal, leaning more toward the punk end of the rock and roll spectrum. The title track opens the LP, and is a favorite, and the dueling vocals between Lowry and keyboardist Sherrilynn Nelson are bright and joyful. I enjoy “Riot,” too, a track that’s like a brash and raw Ramones mixed with early LA hardcore outfit Sin 34. Some of the songs, though still rough and ready, have a bit more of a melodic bounce, with an injection of power pop trying to temper things. One such song is “Moron,” which is still just as wild and raucous as the others, but you get a bit of pop in it, and it’s surely going to get your head bobbing. “Won’t Pretend,” with cleaner production, could almost be an indie pop tune, it’s so bubbly, though the lo-fi production and wall of guitars give it a fantastic texture, bright and gravelly at the same time. If you’re a fan of garage punk or a fan of classic early wave punk rock, I can’t think of a better way to spend 30 minutes of your life than giving this record a spin.
DUCKS LTD. – Modern Fiction (Carpark Records, www.carparkrecords.com)
Mere months ago Carpark Records rereleased Ducks Ltd’s debut EP, tacking on a few new songs to turn it into a mini-LP. Now Ducks Ltd. are back with their proper debut LP, a ten-song wonder of jangly indie-pop. As I mentioned in my review of the mini-LP, the band reminds me of the sort of bands that recorded for Sarah Records or Slumberland, with a wonderfully delicate touch, a clean breezy guitar sound, poppy beat, and vocals trying to sound indifferent while singing about topics that you can’t feel indifferent about. The opening track, “How Lonely Are You,” is a perfect example. The guitars are super bright and the beat has a lively step. The vocals are somewhat blasé while singing lyrics about being alone, quite a contrast to the sunny melody. “18 Cigarettes” is heavenly, with a rhythm and bass line that reminds me of New Order meets The Smiths, and the guitars and melody are impossibly cheerful. “Under the Rolling Moon” is a favorite, with a driving beat reminiscent of Stereolab, but more of a folksy singer-songwriter melody and played with dreamy instrumentation and production. “Patience Wearing Thin” is an interesting outlier, different from the rest of the songs, a short instrumental featuring a bit of country twang. It’s nice, but a bit out of place. “Always There” has a fantastic rolling and rambling feel and a simple yet huge chorus that’s just the song title, but with all the instruments playing huge striding chords. Tom McGreevy (lead vocal, guitar, bass, keyboards) and Evan Lewis (guitar, bass, drum programming) have crafted a debut LP that improves upon their EP, and is something they should be very proud of.
ELWAY – The English Wishbone (Red Scare Industries, www.redscare.net)
Red Scare is on a roll lately, getting great bands that haven’t released new music in a minute into the studio. A couple weeks ago Chicago’s The Bollweevils had their turn. The latest is Elway, whose last record was 2018’s “For the Sake of the Bit” LP. This time out, Elway comes out of the pandemic with a new two-song single. The title track fills the A-side with Elway’s classic blend of indie and pop punk, full of lush guitar and big gang vocals. This one’s going to be a big crowd pleaser on tour. The B-side, “Kronos V. Kairos,” is very different, quieter, slower, and dreamier. There’s a strong sense of emotion here, in the melody and in the vocals, and at points it gets quite intense. The title refers to the two different words for time used by the ancient Greeks. Kronos is chronological time, what we think about when we look at the clock. Kairos, though, refers to an opportune or proper time to take action. Kronos is quantitative, kairos is qualitative. It’s the difference between waiting for something to happen and making something happen. Red Scare’s fearless leader, Toby Jeg, says Elway’s got a bunch of shows booked coming up and needed to fill out their set with some new tunes. These are a good kick start.
KITNER – Shake the Spins (Relief Map Records, www.reliefmaprecords.com)
Formed in 2015, it’s taken Kitner six years to release their debut LP. Much of this is due to some members being busy with other projects, most notably the band Choke Up, of whom I’ve written glowingly in the past. Though both bands are soaked in the tradition of emotionally charged rock music, Kitner does it with a much lighter touch. But that’s not to say this is an album of fluff. On the contrary, the ten tracks are packed with passion. One doesn’t need to scream and roar to feel. After a lovely short instrumental introduction “Hi-Fi Times,” which gives me images of floating down a grand river, the album seamlessly transitions into “Suddenly,” a song that perfectly encapsulates the Kitner aesthetic. It’s light and lilting, with a mesmerizing arrangement and vocals that sound vaguely desperate. I love the way keyboards are used in these songs, providing an ambience that contributes to the otherworldly dream-like feel. And the band know how to use quiet moments of songs, like in “Bowery,” when everything stops except the bass and vocals for a bit, then the keyboards subtly join in. Uniquely, “Junebug” is a delicate waltz with twangy Americana guitar and even and harmonica. The result is lovely and lush. I love how “Orient Heights” starts out huge and dreamy, then quiets down when the vocals come in, with just acoustic guitar and subtle percussion to accompany the singing. The song seesaws between massive and intimate; the mastery of dynamics is impressive. The melody’s vague winter holiday feel makes sense given the lyrical content about events surrounding a New Year’s Eve celebration. Harmonica appears again in “Malden MA,” a relatively raucous song about stumbling through life in an alcohol-fueled haze. “Today I look hung over but I’m actually still drunk / Stayed up all night just hoping something good would come,” the song says. The chorus of "I'm starving but not an artist” then flows into the start of the next verse: “They say Pollack was too drunk to paint and that I'm too drunk to stand up straight/Too stubborn to ever try to change my way." Kitner may have taken the long way ‘round to get to their debut LP, but it’s worth it, because this is an amazing record that’s certain to make my end of year list of the best of 2021.
SEMIHELIX – Recoil (Mariel Recording Company, semihelix.bandcamp.com)
Semihelix is an Austin, Texas trio that straddles the line between indie pop and dream pop. Geannie Friedman’s guitars jangle and her vocals have a pretty lilt to them, even as the overall feel is richer and thicker than one would expect from a trio. Right from the start, you can tell that this record is something special; “Only To Go On” opens the LP with a head bobbing pop beat, but there’s a big dreaminess in the arrangement, as well. The title track, too, leans heavily into the twee indie pop sound of the 90s, but there’s something about the production that gives the trio a gloriously ethereal and sensual sound. “Only Bluff” is likely the most straightforward retro indie-pop song of the album, with a drier sound, focused more on the guitar jangle and lovely gliding vocals. While not thick and dreamy sounding like the other tracks, it’s a most satisfying pop track, nonetheless. All these songs are satisfying, really. Most of the time dream pop bands are just dreamy and indie pop bands adorably twee. Semihelix manage to mix the best aspects of both genres to create something reasonably unique and very listenable.
UNITED DEFIANCE – Change The Frequency (Thousand Islands Records, www.thousandislandsrecords.com)
“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war…our Great Depression is our lives.” Thus opens the new LP from United Defiance. The quote is from the movie “Fight Club,” and the rest of it (not used on the LP, but incredibly relevant) says, “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” The 1999 movie was prophetic, and we now live in a world where a segment of our society are still clinging to that hope, that impossible dream, and increasingly pissed off and desperate that it hasn’t happened yet, so much so that they’re willing to believe any charlatan that tells them what they want to hear. The song “Cool Kids Club” is a two-edged sword, slashing at these types of people, as well as those who would judge anyone who doesn’t agree with them. “You must follow all those things they say / And never question anything they do / And if there is a problem they’ll sweep it all away / But stand up for yourself and they’ll have nothing left to say,” the song says. The irony of the song is that it’s about the punk rock scene, but remove the reference to punk and you would be forgiven for thinking it’s about the Q-Anon conspiracy types. The best advice the song has to offer to counter this is “You can never pay your dues wearing somebody else’s shoes / So find your path and always be yourself.” “Empty Advice” is a song that was released as a single last fall, but its relevance hasn’t faded with time. “Sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong / Just stand your ground and write your own song,” the chorus instructs. But it’s this verse that hits hardest on the point: “All this time that you’ve been spending / Stuck in your comfort zone… / Your empty advice casts more shadows / As you keep preaching about the things you don’t know.” Musically, this record is classic United Defiance, fast, speedy, raucous hardcore punk, but tempered with a melodic sensibility. The band are usually lumped in with the skate punk genre, but that sells the band short; they’re better and have more variety in their sound than your typical skate punk band. For example, “Frolic In Darkness” is old school fast’n’loud hardcore with a jumping ska breakdown. “Please Don’t Crash” is a mid-tempo track that has the darkness of skate punk, but more of an indie rock feel. “Sing With Me” is unabashed street punk, with huge fun gang vocals. And the closing track is a fun cover version of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” an anthem of protest. United Defiance show they aren’t so easily pigeonholed into a single genre with this latest LP, and they continue to show their proficiency at playing fast’n’loud punk rock.
THE ZIGGENS – Oregon (www.theziggensofficial.com)
Nineteen years is a long time between albums, especially when your band hasn’t broken up or gone on hiatus. But that’s how long it’s been since The Ziggens’ last LP, their self-titled release, came out. The Orange County, California band that formed in 1990 steadily released new material throughout that decade and into the early 2000s, and then…silence. But now they’re back with a whopping nineteen songs and more than an hour of music on “Oregon.” The band self-describes their genre as “cowpunksurfabilly,” and that’s as apt a description as you can get for this band that spans the genres of country, punk, surf, and rockabilly. The band is certainly known for being eclectic, but they’re also known just as much for their humor; the songs throughout the album aren’t about serious emotional or political issues. They’re nearly all jokes and novelties. I say nearly, because there are a couple tracks that aren’t, really. Like “Rev It Up,” which opens the LP: it’s a classic SoCal surf instrumental, and a well-done one. “I Blow My Nose On My T-Shirt” is another surf instrumental, albeit with a bizarre title. And “Pulling Muscles From Michelle” is another, with a short opening stolen from a movie, I think an Annette Funicello ad Frankie Avalon flick, in which the girl tells her guy, “Frank, you’ve got so much going for you, and you’re just wasting it. You should be doing something more, like making your life count for something besides the next big wave.” The reply from Frank is, “Look, honey, I don’t wanna go through that again.” But from there, the jokes come fast and furious, and the genres are unpredictable. There are punk tracks like “The Goys Are Back In Town” and “Riot on the Beach.” There are light pop ballads, like “Macon,” about the girl that got away (because her mother thought you were an addict), and “You Were Gone,” a light jazz-pop song complete with piano and saxophone solo.“Dickie Ziggen” is a rockabilly song that sounds like the Stray Cats, except it’s a straight-up novelty song about one of the band members. And “Ride the Storm (Drain)” is a dark hard rocker. The band even includes silly a country ballad, “Jesus I Trust In You.” The song is about keeping faith, even when every prayer goes unanswered and everything continues to go wrong. Proof that the last bastion of socially acceptable discrimination is against the overweight comes via the novelty song, “It’s Rough Being Heavy Set,” which tells the woeful tale of how everyone avoids our singer because he’s fat. The funk-rock “The People On My Street” is all about the various weirdos in the neighborhood (again including digs at overweight people). Though some of the humor is juvenile, and some of the genres are not my favorites, the musicianship and variety are top notch.
SAM JOHNSON – Along the Dark Edges of Everything (Whatwetalkaboutrec.bandcamp.com)
Sam Johnson is best known as the front man for the Boston band Choke Up, of whom I’ve spoken glowingly in these “pages” in the past. But Johnson has another side to him, and he explores this in his debut solo LP. On this record he focuses not on grand post punk, post hardcore, and indie rock and instead on Americana and folk-rock. The album shows his versatility as a songwriter, and how he can still tell stories with his music, no matter the genre. From the opening of “Get Lost,” with its down home sound from” harmonica and acoustic guitar, you can tell this is going to be very different from his work in Choke Up. But though this is Americana influenced this is not a country record. It still has an indie DIY sound that you can hear in the melodies and in the lyrics, and the instrumentation isn’t your typical country music. I hear lush arrangements featuring various keyboards and I think I hear trumpet. I really like the waltz-time “Brag of My Heart.” It has a delicate touch in the acoustic guitar and electric piano, and Johnson’s vocals are calm and hushed. The electric guitars, however, get downright raucous at times, presenting a nice contrast. I can sense the attention to detail that went into the arrangements on these songs; unlike how punk bands usually work out their parts to a song, everything in these songs fits together with purpose. “Wildfire” is a study in how you can blend indie and country – you can hear the two genres vying for dominance in this song, pop melody and twangy guitar dueling for supremacy. “Haunt Me” reaches back to the 50s with a soft rockabilly feel, but also tempered with indie sensibilities. “Along The Dark Edges of Everything” is a worthy entrant of punk singers doing solo Americana.
JORDAN KRIMSTON – All Commodities (darkhorsecoffeerecords.com)
Hot on the heals of his debut LP, “Bushwhacking” which came out earlier this year, Jordan Krimston is back with a new EP featuring six songs that show a definite growth in his songwriting and arranging. Once again, Krimston performs all the instruments, but this time has help on some tracks from bassist AJ Peacox, who plays in local band Matt Caskitt and the Breaks, and from Jordan Cantor and Cheyenne Benton on backing vocals. Like “Bushwhacking,” Krimston makes heavy use of synths in these new songs, giving them a definite pop bent. This is especially true of “Safe With You,” a song that could have crossover appeal on the pop charts. Where that song has the soft texture of a love song, “Quiet Conversations” is another pop song, this one with a brighter sound and strong dance beat. My favorite track of the EP has to be the closer, “Spare Key.” It starts out somewhat tentatively, with sparse instrumentation, just percussion and vocals, but soon gets thick and rich. While there’s a pop element running through the track, as there is with them all, this one sounds the most “indie” of the group, with some lovely folk elements as well as some great indie rock that reminds me of latter period Cymbals Eat Guitars. The title track, too, is a little more indie sounding; even with its bright synths trying to put on a happy face, the song has a morose, introspective feel. Though they’re poppier, the songs on this EP have more complexity and depth than those on “Bushwhacking.” And I liked the LP a lot. I like this EP even more.
SAD GIRLZ CLUB – I Think I’m Ready (lavasocksrecords.bigcartel.com)
Sad Girlz Club has gone through some tumultuous changes lately, from the loss of a member to the relocation from Sacramento to disparate Southern California locales in the midst of a global pandemic. Yet the (now) trio perseveres and now presents a new three-song EP. The music is just as powerful as ever, up-tempo and energetic with heart-on-your-sleeve lyrics. The title track opens the EP with a bouncy track about, well, bouncing back from adversity, getting out of a bad situation, and moving forward with your life. Shelby Murray’s vocals go from tentative and vulnerable at the start of the track to strong and confident as the track evolves. I love the different layers of backing vocals, too, giving the band’s sound a thick texture. “Problems” is about recognizing that the end of a relationship is not always the other person’s fault; we need to recognize the problems we cause ourselves. The manic instrumentals echo the personal mania we often go through in trying to sort out our lives. The closing track is “Tossing and Turning,” and it starts out with solemn bass and guitar before exploding into the most raucous of the three songs. Sung by Travis Dunbar, the song is an anthem about finding new love far from home. The song is noisy and chaotic, but also full of pop goodness and ultimately uplifting and joyful. The good news is that now that Sad Girlz Club is in Southern California, I’ll have more opportunities to see them live once the pandemic settles down. Recommended for all fans of pop punk.
THE SLACKERS & PAPA B / Sic & Mad – Split 7” (piratespressrecords.com)
The A-side is a previously unreleased song called “Love I Bring,” and it features The Slackers with Japanese dance hall legend Papa B. It’s a classic reggae/dance hall sound, though somewhat sparse in terms of the arrangement. Sic & Mad, on the B-side, is a former side project of Vi, Ara, and Marcus of The Slackers. It’s called “Cat Prozac,” and is completely different from anything The Slackers have ever done. It’s a hilarious folk-punk track all about a cat on the anti-anxiety drug. It’s complete with meows, mews, and howls, and tells all about life with a druggy kitty. I think the B-side is the one that’s more fun and will appeal more to Jersey Beat readers.
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!
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