Thursday, November 20, 2014

Meet Sheer Mag!

One of the biggest thrills for any music lover is coming across that one song that makes you go "Wow!". In my continuous quest to share music that excites me with the world at large, I come across a lot of really great stuff. But rarely do I hear a song that's so original and remarkable that it literally makes my jaw drop. Sheer Mag's "What You Want" is one such song - a scuzzy slice of power pop so utterly perfect that you'd expect to find it on one of the Teenline compilations. If you heard this song while you were out eating pizza or standing in line at the post office, you'd stop and say, "Whoa, who's this?!"

Fronted by Christina Halladay (of Philly rock n' soul standouts The Shakes), Sheer Mag just started playing shows this past February. The newness of this band proves to be an asset on its self-titled EP - which has a raw charm to it that a more polished outfit might not have been able to capture (I love that dirty guitar tone!). Halladay is a commanding and highly appealing presence on vocals - what they used to call a "star" back when they still played good music on the radio. And these hard rocking pop songs are perfectly suited to her assertive vocal style. Give "Sit And Cry" and "Hard Lovin" a couple spins, and their choruses will invade your brain without warning. And "What You Want" is instant pop bliss. It seems unimaginable and downright criminal that it's not a huge hit. If you like power pop that genuinely rocks, you need to be all over Sheer Mag immediately!


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Retro Reviews: The Dictators- Manifest Destiny

How great were The Dictators? So great that even their "bad" album is darn near a classic. Conventional wisdom says that 1977's Manifest Destiny was at best a blatant sellout and at worst a weak entry in an otherwise unassailable catalog. In no way do I concur with this sentiment. Straight up, Manifest Destiny freakin' rocks! It may not be the first Dictators album you should buy. But like all the The 'Taters albums, it belongs in the collection of every human being who knows good music.

Discouraged by the poor sales of their brilliant debut album Go Girl Crazy, The Dictators found themselves wondering if the general public was capable of "getting" their ironic/satirical lyrics. Lead songwriter Andy Shernoff had actually quit the band for a brief time - replaced on bass by future Twisted Sister stalwart Mark "The Animal" Mendoza. Upon his return, Shernoff moved to keyboards. Determined to change their fortunes with the record-buying public, The Dictators set out to craft a more commercially viable sophomore LP. Shernoff's lyrics were intentionally dumbed down - and it was hard to deny that Manifest Destiny took aim at the lucrative arena rock market that KISS and Blue Oyster Cult were tapping at the time. The irony was that the album flopped every bit as badly as Go Girl Crazy. Let's face it - The Dictators were such an incredible band that they couldn't have "sold out" even if they'd tried. And while some would say they did try, Manifest Destiny has proven over time to be far more musically credible than most people think. With a couple of notable exceptions (The Dictators were never meant to do ballads), the material is quite good. Shernoff, one of the all-time great songwriters, just wasn't capable of penning a bad tune. And in his attempt at writing trite rock lyrics, there's an essence of parody in some songs ("Disease") and outright brilliance in others ("Science Gone Too Far").

Sequenced as it is, Manifest Destiny is like two albums in one. On the first two-thirds of the record, The Dictators make their play for mass appeal with a mix of radio-friendly pop songs, intended arena anthems, and corny ballads. The final third of the album, on the other hand, is like a blueprint for the band's future direction. Handsome Dick Manitoba was transitioning from "secret weapon" to full-time lead singer, and he leads the charge on the hard-driving originals "Science Gone Too Far" and "Young, Fast, Scientific" (two of the band's greatest songs) plus an inspired cover of The Stooges' "Search and Destroy". But while it's reasonable to wish that there were more songs on this album like its final three tracks, the "sellout" portion of the album is not without its gems. "Exposed" is one of my all-time favorite Dictators songs. Perhaps on the heels of Go Girl Crazy, this number was not particularly well-received by hardcore fans. But if it were to come out today, most people would describe it as really good power pop. "Disease" - rescued from its lyrical ridiculousness by Handsome Dick's genius spoken word intro and engaging vocal performance - is pure horror rock fun. And for all of the cheesiness it embraces, "Heartache" boasts a hook that should have made Shernoff millions.

One thing that needs to be remembered is that The Dictators never claimed to be a "punk" band. Their existence predated punk music - and no doubt they influenced it with the attitude they presented and the Detroit rock/'60s garage inspired sounds of Go Girl Crazy. If Manifest Destiny sounds largely like the work of a completely different band, there's really no sin in that. Overly "commercial" or not, it's a very good album from one of the greatest rock n' roll bands of all-time. Four of its nine tracks, in fact, were deemed good enough to appear on the band's new Faster... Louder best-of collection. I would urge the uninitiated to swiftly get their mittens on 1978's Bloodbrothers and the extraordinary 2001 "comeback" effort D.F.F.D.(my personal favorite 'Taters album). But it would be a mistake, I assure you, to sleep on Manifest Destiny.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Barreracudas are back!

Hey! Remember Barreracudas?! Their debut LP, Nocturnal Missions, made my year-end top ten list back in 2011. Preceding great albums from the likes of The Cry!, Warm Soda, and Wyldlife, it ushered in a really fertile time for glam-inflected powerpop. It's been three years already since I first reviewed Barreracudas - and perhaps you were thinking, "Whatever happened to those guys? They were great!" Well, with band members now scattered all across the country, it's hard to get a lot done. But Barreracudas are still a band, and their long-awaited second album is nearing completion. To tide us over until then, they've given us a brand-new single. And oh my god, it's soooooooooooo good!

99.9 percent of all bands on earth will hear "Promises" and be super jealous that they didn't write this song. It's total bubblegum with a hint of new wave pop - think Ohio Express meets The Cars. And that hook is impossibly good! Seriously, you can just forget about getting this song out of your head! Don't even bother trying! One of these days, I'm going to call in sick so I can just dance around my basement like a maniac all day with this track on repeat. If there's any justice in this world, the line "I've got a pocket full of quarters now/And I'm your Donkey Kong" will become a cultural catchphrase on a mass level.

With "Promises" being so bubbly and infectious, you might not be super motivated to flip this record over. But you'll be rewarded if you do. "Young and Dumb" channels late '70s Ramones by way of '60s girl groups - and again we see that Barreracudas have incorporated a lot of new ideas into their playbook since we last heard from them. I'm figuring the new album will be a little different from the last one - but no doubt equally good. Pick up a copy of "Promises" from Oops Baby Records!


Friday, November 14, 2014

Here are The Shangri Blahs!

In my 20-year music writing "career", I don't think I've ever reviewed a band that didn't sing in English. That changes today! Helsinki's Shangri Blahs (great band name, by the way!) actually have performed in the English language before. But on their new EP, Rankka Päivä, they sing in their native Finnish. Given the band's '77 punk/power pop/rock n' roll style, I'm quite surprised that I had not heard of The Shangri Blahs prior to discovering them on the Stream Or Die blog this month. They released a really good debut EP last year - which I managed to miss. But now they've given us Rankka Päivä, and I think this is by far the best music they've delivered to date.

I've always been a sucker for catchy three-chord rock n' roll, and The Shangri Blahs pull off the style with urgency and conviction. Opening track "Sä et Markku tiedä kaikkee" has that anthemic quality that I just love in punk music, and it had me pumping my fist before I even knew what that chorus was saying. I liked it even more when the band explained the concept of the record to me. The title of the EP is the Finnish title of the great Michael Douglas movie Falling Down - and the record is inspired by the themes of that film.Via three-chord rock n' roll songs, The Shangri Blahs address questions about what lengths a man might go to to reverse his private misfortunes - and what responsibilities a larger public might have to a person in need. These are very provocative questions - and the band isn't necessarily claiming to have all the answers. What they do have is a lot of heart, and these are songs that truly have something to say. And I like that I can hear the passion in the vocals even if I don't fully understand the words. This is a band that definitely knows how to pack a lot of power into a chorus. And stylistically, these guys are "old school" in the best sense of the term. "Tää on psykoosi" reminds me a little of "Groovy Times" era Clash, while "Laastariratkaisu" could have been slotted on one of my 1995 mixed tapes directly between The Beltones and Rancid. Perhaps it might help if you're fluent in Finnish. But even if you're not, you'll be hard-pressed not to sing along when that chorus to "Sä et Markku tiedä kaikkee" kicks in. When it comes to great rock n' roll, there's really no such thing as a language barrier.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

How about some more Midnite Snaxxx!

So it's been a while since I last wrote about Midnite Snaxxx. And by a while, I mean over three years! Since then, they've released two more singles and a highly acclaimed self-titled LP. And just in the last year, Dulcinea and Rene have added a new drummer named Sammy. While the Snaxxx haven't been heard from on record since 2012, they do have a new single due out very soon on the always dependable Total Punk Records. You can stream the A-side here. It's a little bit of a departure from the garage/powerpop/party rock stylings of the band's earlier releases - but still freaking great! If the album sounded like it could have come out on Bomp! Records back in the day, this track might have you thinking Dangerhouse instead. "Don't Wake Me Up" is a quick and snotty blast of late '70s/early '80s style punk that ought to have you plotting how you're going to get your hands on the vinyl. I imagine ordering info will soon be available on the band's Facebook page. So enjoy "Don't Wake Me Up" - and stay tuned!


Monday, November 10, 2014

Los Pepes for everyone!

Well! Just when I thought I'd finalized my top albums of the year list, Los Pepes have sent me scurrying back to the drawing board! It seems I have some serious re-arranging to do! Having already wowed me with the "loudest power pop on earth" stylings of their prior EPs, these Londoners have really honed their musical vision on a brilliant debut album that had me going nuts from the very first note. At this point, Los Pepes have settled in to a classic '70s pop/punk sound a la Buzzcocks, Boys, and Undertones. Los Pepes For Everyone - out now on Germany's Wanda Records - executes the style to perfection. Needless to say, I'm quite pleased!

If I can pinpoint something that separates Los Pepes from a whole lot of similar bands, it's that their songwriting seems directly informed by '60s pop and girl groups. They look back not just to the Ramones, Boys, etc. but also to the timeless sounds that inspired those bands. In that respect, Los Pepes sound less like a modern answer to all those late '70s pop/punk greats and more like a band that could have existed alongside of them. "Punk rock you can dance to" is the band's credo, and that's a campaign I can totally get behind! Los Pepes For Everyone combines the crackling energy and primal simplicity of punk with a joyful rush of melodies and harmonies that ought to have you whistling all day and dancing into the night. Whether you consider this power pop on amphetamines or bubblegum punk rock, you can't deny that it's super fun and immensely infectious. And I love the way this band manages to combine such sweet melodies with a totally ballsy musical delivery. While not quite "lo-fi", the recording is raw enough that it doesn't neuter the punchy guitars and heart-racing drum work that propel the band's attack. And while pop/punk music often falls short because it's too much of one and not enough of the other, Los Pepes have found just the right blend.

My first exposure to Los Pepes For Everyone was the opening number "All I Can Do". I listened to it a couple times and literally could not stop singing it the rest of the day! I figured it had to be "the hit" - until I went back to the album and discovered that all the songs are hits! I'm impressed not just by Los Pepes' ability to deliver consistent quality on this 12-song LP but also by the sheer number of songs that could have been standout singles. And amazingly, only two of these songs have appeared on previous EPs. This is a debut album that sounds like a greatest hits collection - and I would not be surprised if that was the band's intention from the start! From the bubbly melodies of "Alone In The City" to the bittersweet crunch of "This Love's War" to the rambunctious fun of "Guilty Pleasures", the hooks on this record are numerous and massive. And while the Buzzcocks and Boys have both delivered very good albums this year, I don't think either band is still writing songs as good as "I Don't Need Anyone" or "I Won't Fall In Love".

The title Los Pepes For Everyone pretty much says it all. Dom Daley, one of my favorite music reviewers, calls it "life affirming rock n' roll". And that really hits the nail on the head. If you're looking for an album that's going to put you in a swell mood and allow you to escape your worries for a good half hour, this is it. I imagine that Los Pepes shows are high-spirited affairs full of much dancing and singing along. And that same spirit comes across on record. There will always be a place in the punk world for bands that are full of rage or strong opinions on political issues. But sometimes, you know, I just need to hear some music that's fun. Without a doubt, Los Pepes have guaranteed themselves a spot in my year-end top three. Determining exactly where this album falls within that top three could require some very difficult decisions on my part. What a fine problem to have!


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Low Culture V. Needles//Pins!

In today's underground punk world, there aren't as many split releases as there used to be. But I still enjoy a good split from time to time, and Dirtnap Records is one label that really seems to "get" this format. If there's a down side to splits, it's that sometimes the one band is awesome while the other completely blows. Or sometimes bands will be paired together when they have absolutely nothing in common in a musical sense. So I really appreciate the thought that Ken puts into his split projects - and his history of winning pairings such as Something Fierce/Occult Detective Club and Mean Jeans/Big Eyes. Dirtnap doesn't get involved with splits very often. But when it does, it gets it right! A case in point is a brand-new one featuring Low Culture and Needles//Pins. Low Culture - with its poppy garage sound and direct Marked Men connection - is pretty much the quintessential Dirtnap band. And when it comes to Needles//Pins, a lot of us have been wondering why in the heck they weren't already on the Dirtnap roster!

I'll be honest - I had a preconceived notion that I was going to like the Needles//Pins side of this split way better than the Low Culture side. That's no knock on Low Culture - just a reflection on Needles//Pins being one of my favorite bands. But, you know, if I had to pick a "winner" of this split, I might give it to Low Culture by a hair. "Reservations" and "Don't Tell Me" are the best songs I've heard to date from this band. To me, these tracks are a perfect example of how a band can keep a lo-fi garage spirit in its music even when it records in a professional studio. With Joe and Chris so well-known for their work in Marked Men and Shang-A-Lang, it's no surprise that Low Culture combines qualities of both bands. That was true of the band's LP, but it's far more noticeable here with the better production. This is definitely a poppier sound than I was expecting - but in an adventurously off-kilter way. "Reservations" in particular indulges in a bit of what you might call "slacker jamming". I'm reminded a little of the classic days of alternative rock - when loose, fuzzy pop ruled college radio. I love the energy, and those melodies have really been working their way into my brain. If you fondly recall a time when "indie" rock didn't suck or are into newer bands like Tenement, I think you will dig. Now I'm stoked for the next album!

Both of Needles//Pins' contributions to this split are from the same sessions that produced the terrific Shamebirds LP. In case that album didn't leave you with your fill of bad breakups, broken hearts, and toxic relationships, "Hateful" picks right up where Shamebirds left off. I can't get over how good Adam is at writing this type of song. For his sake, I hope he doesn't write entirely from personal experience. But considering the brutal honesty and sheer intensity of his lyrics, it seems unlikely that he's just making this shit up! "Bored" is a song that people will relate to immediately - an anthem for all of us who know that one person who just needs to shut the hell up. What I love about Needles//Pins is that their songs speak to the universal human experience. But when it comes to the things that are genre specific about their music, there's no questioning why they're so beloved by powerpop/garage/punk fans. The lead guitar in "Hateful" is just so catchy, and "Bored" delivers a hook to die for. Sometimes the "leftovers" from bands' album sessions are best left unheard, but both of these songs are quite good. And now all feels right in the world since Needles//Pins and Dirtnap have finally worked together. I would say that this is not the last time you'll hear this band on this label.

Did I say that Low Culture "won" this split? I lied. It's a tie. And when a split is done right, that's just how it should be.