Sunday, November 18, 2018

Rich Ragany -...Like We'll Never Make It

I've been saying for years that Rich Rags is one of our greatest living songwriters, and he sure is making me sound less crazy with every new release. ...Like We'll Never Make It, his solo debut, ought to be the album that lands him on the covers of magazines and onto the mainstream pop charts. He has really outdone himself with this release - which is being hailed as his "singer/songwriter" album but is actually a logical progression from Role Models' brilliant third LP Dance Moves. Rags has grown from a great punk rock and power pop songwriter to a great songwriter, period.

For this solo endeavor, Rags assembled a backing band so superb that they have since become a permanent entity called Rich Ragany and The Digressions. Gaff (Glitterati and Dedwardians) is on guitar and served as Rags' right hand in the creation of this album. Also on board are Ricky McGuire (UK Subs, The Men They Couldn't Hang) on bass, the incomparable Kris Rodgers on keyboards, longtime Role Models producer Andy Brook on piano, Kit Swing (Mallory Knox) on backing vocals, and Role Models' own Simon Maxwell on drums. While we may often dread our favorite artists' ascent into "maturity", that's exactly what I've been waiting for in Rags' case. He has too much to offer the world to be eternally pigeonholed as a power pop guy. ...Like We'll Never Make It is the work of a masterful songwriter who has come fully into his own. The story he's telling is his own, but in a way it's all of ours as well. This is an album about what it really means to be alive. In particular it celebrates the mistakes and missteps that are so crucial to a life fully lived. The album title is a reference to leaving regrets behind and always moving forward in life. Who can't relate to that? What's so immediately striking about this album is Gaff's jangly and absolutely beautiful guitar tone. It's perhaps the one element that distinguishes ...Like We'll Never Make It from a Role Models album. It lends the album a warm, soothing feel that meshes marvelously with Rags' earthy everyman vocals and straight-from-the-heart songwriting. And while the album does have Rags' name on it, a lot of these songs would not be what they are without the contributions of his band mates. Kris Rodgers on keyboards has a long history of making great songs even better, and you'll hear that here for sure. And if you doubt the importance of a backing vocalist in a band, listen to the impact Kit Swing has on "Your Distance" and "Later Than It Is".

Considering that Rich Rags is a Canadian living in London, perhaps "Americana" is not the best label to apply to his debut solo album. But on this release, he definitely takes a seat next to great American alt-rock songwriters like Paul Westerberg, Dave Pirner, and John Easdale (vocally, he resembles the latter two quite a bit). ...Like We'll Never Make It is the perfect album to play while you're sitting quietly on a Sunday morning and reflecting on your own triumphs and failures. If that makes it "dad rock", well then this ought to be the gold standard of the genre! Of the album's ten tracks, all feel like essential pieces. "That World" is vintage Rags and will appeal immediately to longtime fans. "Your Distance" stuns with beautiful simplicity. "Like We'll Never Make It" is the life-affirming anthem you'd expect from one of the album's pivotal tracks (hopefully Mike Mills doesn't hear that chorus and decide to file suit!). "Lose With Me", the album's other pivotal track, is a gorgeous country ballad that leaves us with the crucial words "I've never felt more alive". Elsewhere Rags turns to Faces/Mott barroom boogie on "Scotty Thompson", exquisite mature pop on "Heart's Souvenir", and stripped-down acoustic soul-bearing on the brilliant closer "Easy". It's always tremendously satisfying to get to the final track of an album and discover that an artist has saved the best for last. "Easy" is the song on this release that has stuck with me the most, and I keep going back to it to soak in every word. Rich Rags just may have written his own "Here Comes A Regular"!

Coming off of three Role Models albums in three years, Rich Rags could have been excused for taking a break from this whole making records thing. But let's all be thankful that he didn't! Once again working with the PledgeMusic platform, Rags was able to fund, record, and release this remarkable album. And in typical Rags fashion, I believe he's already working on songs for his next album with The Digressions! Let's enjoy this one for now. In a just world, Rags would achieve worldwide popularity to rival Ryan Adams - or better yet, Bryan Adams.


Friday, November 16, 2018

Jagger Holly - The Last Of The International Playboys

Having come up in the zine world as a pop-punk kid in those ancient times of the '90s, I am pleased as punch to hear this genre of music still thriving today. There's tremendous Ramones-inspired/three-chord talent out there right now, and we are very fortunate to have labels like Monster Zero and Mom's Basement Records that devote themselves to filling the world with great pop-punk. It's no surprise, then, that those two labels have a hand in what I consider to be the best pop-punk album of the last several years. The Last Of The International Playboys is the second album from Jagger Holly, a band featuring Jay Dee from Johnie 3 and Spastic Hearts along with members of DeeCracks and On My Arms. Essentially what we have here is a pop-punk supergroup - one born in Ohio and now based in Austria. I was a big fan of Spastic Hearts, and I like Jagger Holly even better. The sound is pure pop-punk that fully embraces the pop side of the equation (oh, those harmonies!). The Last Of The International Playboys brings to mind genre standard-bearers such as MTX and Darlington, but not in a copyist sense. This is just great pop-punk in the "let's have a good time!" mold. Literally and figuratively, it's the perfect mix of American pop-punk and European pop-punk. Jay, I mean Jagger, writes lyrics that make me laugh out loud but also show genuine tenderness in the love song department. Topic-wise, these 12 tracks cover all of the essential issues in life: partying, longing for lost love, pursuing new love, hanging out at the beach, heartbreak, romance, and crushing on porn stars. Usually with a pop-punk record, I go through all of the tracks and try to identify which songs are the "hits". I can't do that with this album since literally EVERY song is a hit!

The Last Of The International Playboys won't turn any non-fans of pop-punk to the dark side. But if you are a fan of pop-punk, I 100% guarantee that you will love this album and play it to death. From the lyrics to the melodies to the vocals to the musicianship, you simply won't hear this style of music done better. And if you could quantify fun, this would be a ten out of ten. Blue vinyl is available from Monster Zero, and red vinyl is available from Mom's Basement. Outloud! Records is releasing the album on CD. This is the summer album of 2018 - arriving just in time for winter!


Monday, November 5, 2018

Sweatshop Boys - Two Men

I last reviewed Israel's Sweatshop Boys way back in 2015 when their outstanding EP Always Polite, Never Happy had recently come out. I have to say that that particular release has held up really well over the last three years plus. When it comes to today's powerpop/punk/garage bands, Sweatshop Boys are up there with the best of 'em. So I am more than pleased that the band has finally released its second album - the long-awaited follow-up to 2013's The Great Depression. It's called Two Men, and the band describes it as "an existentialist day dream for all those who stare at the abyss and spit right into it". If you think that sounds like some pretty heavy stuff, I'd say you're right! But what I enjoy about this album is that it tackles serious philosophical questions of existence (Is life devoid of meaning? Are we all completely alone?) using music that's totally upbeat and catchy. Rather than using fun tunes to escape the problems of life, Sweatshop Boys uses them to confront them! As the band says, these songs won't make your problems go away. But at least you'll feel less alone. Isn't there something tremendously comforting in knowing that when you have troubling thoughts about your very existence, someone else is thinking those exact same things?!

Musically, Two Men recalls a time when powerpop/punk/garage hybrids like Marked Men, Steve Adamyk Band, and Sonic Avenues were ruling the punk underground. With that musical style no longer as commonplace as it was in the early part of the decade, it's nice to hear Sweatshop Boys carry it off so well. These guys know how to write a punchy punk tune with melody, and collectively they form one of the tightest units out there. Two Men delivers energy and hooks in abundance, but "lightweight" is the last word you could ever use to describe any of these 12 tracks. You might think "Distractions" is just another power pop love song, but dig deeper and you'll find it's really about something else entirely. Elsewhere the band searches for answers to the great existential questions, sometimes pondering the pointlessness of it all ("Vertigo", "A Terminal") and sometimes finding solace in Beach Boys records or unfulfilling sexual conquests ("Brian"; "Too Young").

As you would expect with five years between albums, Two Men finds Sweatshop Boys taking a big leap forward. Yet it's still tremendously satisfying purely as a powerpop/punk record. If you choose to pay close attention to the lyrics (hint: you should!), you can enjoy this release on a whole other level. I love that these songs are extremely profound yet often quite witty/humorous. This is the soundtrack to your latest existential crisis, and somehow it turns out to be a blast!


Friday, November 2, 2018

The SUCK - "Party Town, USA"

What could be better to kick off the weekend than a triumphant shot of good times straight out of Party Town, USA?! Where is Party Town, USA? I think I might know, but I prefer to think of it as a state of mind. Its most celebrated residents are the SUCK: internationally adored ambassadors of street rock and the best new thing to happen to music in 2018. The exclusive digital single "Party Town, USA" is out now on Something To Do Records. It's the third release in the label's monthly singles series titled Something To Do Music For Something To Do People. If you were lucky enough to snag a copy of the SUCK'S debut EP earlier this year, you know exactly what to expect: top-tier Ramones-inspired rock n' roll that kicks all kinds of ass and is above all else FUN. I love the catchy leads and massive guitars on this track, and seriously these lyrics make Andrew WK sound like a lightweight partier! Honestly, I feel like the SUCK will save us all. They are an '80s teen movie come to life, and they will not stop until the masses are dancing in the streets. If you, like me, dream of a world where they build towering monuments to HEAD and Troegs beer outsells Coors, "Party Town, USA" will be your new personal anthem. Play loud or suffer the consequences!


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Vista Blue - More Scary Songs To Sing In The Dark

Look how this worked out: my review of Vista Blue's latest Halloween themed release is exactly my 13th post on this band! Ooooh! More Scary Songs To Sing In The Dark is the sequel to last year's Scary Songs To Sing In The Dark. Both are inspired by the Alvin Schwartz's book series. This EP, in fact, adapts the stories "Wait Till Martin Comes" and "The Slithery Dee" straight from the books. The concept is simple. The songs are all based on urban legends - and those things can be scary as hell since they are purported to be based in truth! If you enjoy Vista Blue's buzzing pop-punk but aren't into a lot of the subject matter the band often sings about, perhaps songs about slaughtered babysitters, giant murderous cats, sea monsters, and escaped killers attacking teenage lovers will be more up your alley. It's remarkable that Vista Blue continues to release so much music yet manages to consistently delight with each new release. The band has been very generous in making a lot of its releases free. In the case of More Scary Songs To Sing In The Dark, it's well-worth the $3 to support this project. I'll never think of Blues Traveler's "Hook" the same way again...


Friday, October 26, 2018

Gino and the Goons - "She Was Crushed"

So wait: Gino and the Goons already put out one of the recent classic albums of budget rock just this year, and they still had enough bullets in the chamber to release the hands-down best EP of 2018?! That's exactly what I'm saying! "She Was Crushed" was released earlier this month on Black Gladiator/Slovenly Recordings. Pound for pound, it just might be Gino and the Goons' strongest release to date. I hate to be that guy who touts every band's newest stuff as its best. But come on: can you honestly tell me you listened to these four tracks and weren't left completely stunned and overjoyed? This, my friends, is the rock n' roll you never stopped believing in! If these songs don't move you to dance, shout in delight, get feisty with your significant other, and perhaps break some minor laws, you are surely beyond helping. No existing band has a better grasp on how to create punk rock n' roll music that ticks every imaginable box. Raw? Absolutely. Raucous? Of course! Catchy? The CDC wants to shut this band down! Give the title track one play, and it'll be lodged in your brain all weekend (we clearly need more bands to employ the honking sax!). T Bone Jones lets out a scream on "Got Messed Up" that ought to be sent straight to the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. I swear to God that Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone came back from the dead to play on "Wrong Side of A Cigarette"!

If you blinked, you probably missed Gino and the Goons' LP Rip It Up earlier this year. As far as I know, it never had a digital release and the vinyl copies were gone in a jiffy (Can you hear it on YouTube? I would say you can!). In that spirit, I would move fast on "She Was Crushed" while supplies last. You will not be disappointed...unless of course you hate rock n' roll. Did I mention this was the best EP of the year?!


Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Jacques Le Coque - Positively...

One of the catchiest records of the year comes to us from Stamford, Connecticut's Jacques Le Coque! Positively... is the band's new album on King Pizza Records - its first since 2015's Hooky. This album, like the last one, has a carefree teenage rock n' roll vibe to it that will make you wanna blow off school and get high. If you dig modern-day garage-pop a la Nobunny or New Swears along with the power pop stylings of bands like The Whiffs, this album should be right up your alley. Where I really give Jacques Le Coque points is in the songwriting department. These definitely guys have the tunes - and I love how they clearly draw so much from the classic sounds of the '60s pop. Opening track "Getaway Car" is rockin' power pop done to perfection - bringing to mind the aforementioned Whiffs or the late, great Exploding Hearts. "Tip of My Tongue" is propelled by a guitar hook worth its weight in gold. "Pretty Penny" would not sound out of place on your local oldies station. "Bead On You" is chock full of glammy/punky goodness. "I Only Want To Rock & Roll" is a bona fide mission statement and one hell of a way to close out an album.

Positively... is positively fun and ought to be cranked at maximum volume at your next house party or while you're driving with your friends in search of a good time. But don't let the silly band name fool you - these guys are talented songwriters who've done their homework on the history of guitar pop. When it comes to garage pop bands in 2018, Jacques Le Coque is up there with the very best of 'em!