Jersey Beat Music Fanzine
 


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

TASAJO – EP1 (tasajx.bandcamp.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


ROBERTO BETTEGA (www.robertob.bandcamp.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democratic For The People (democraticforthepeople.bandcamp.com)

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


HEXADIODE – Controlled Burn (hexadiode.bandcamp.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


RICKY – Palm Trees (rickysmusic.bandcamp.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

DEENA – Some Days (www.deenashoshkes.com)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FULLER – Crush Me (www.listentofuller.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

CHASER – Look Alive (www.chaserpunkrock.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BELLHEAD – Unicorn Bones (bellhead.bandcamp.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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