Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sheer Mag - Need To Feel Your Love

It has been nearly three years since I last reviewed Sheer Mag. It wasn't that I didn't like the band's last two EPs. It was just that I witnessed a number of massive publications (Rolling Stone, Spin, The Guardian, NPR) expounding on the merits of those releases and didn't think myself worthy of adding anything of value to the conversation. But with the arrival of Sheer Mag's debut album Need To Feel Your Love, I concluded that I couldn't possibly not write about it. It's absolutely one of the best records of the year so far. And it solidifies Sheer Mag's position as one of my favorite bands. If I'm not going to write about my favorite bands, then what in the hell is this blog for?!

With Sheer Mag compiling all three of its brilliant EPs onto one collection earlier this year, the stage was set for the Philly outfit to turn a page on its proper debut LP. Sure enough, the band resisted any temptation to pad the new record with re-recordings of old songs. The previous output had established a clear musical identity: DIY punks with a fondness for '70s rock riffs, scuzzy production, and traditional pop song structures, fronted by a fierce powerhouse of a singer. That was merely a jumping-off point for Need To Feel Your Love - a debut album that finds Sheer Mag taking plenty of chances and delivering what just might be the next great rock record. Rock n' roll and punk remain major parts of the equation, but soul and pop loom just as large on these 12 tracks. "Meet Me In The Street" takes the band's love for arena rock way over the top and straight into '80s metal territory. But if you dismiss this opener as big dumb rock, you're missing out on an urgent rallying cry for resistance to oppression and fascism. Hearing "Expect The Bayonet" infuse a soulful pop song with a similar sentiment, I can't help but be reminded of my favorite band of all-time, The Clash. While any musical similarities are slight at best, Sheer Mag is definitely a band that has taken up the fight against injustice all over the world. And just as it was with The Clash, Sheer Mag offers up music that is every bit as compelling as its message. "Meet Me In The Street" is the perfect anthem for our times precisely because it's transcendent rock n' roll above all else (Imagine The Alarm's "68 Guns" if it rocked like an AC/DC song!). And while tracks like "Suffer Me" and "(Say Goodbye To) Sophie Scholl" have very profound things to say about the importance of standing up for what's right, they would not resonate nearly as strongly if they weren't such fantastic songs. "(Say Goodbye To) Sophie Scholl" might be a new high water mark for Sheer Mag - an album closer that leaves a lasting impression and will surely compel a great number of people to research the life story of its subject.

Of course there's also that other side to Sheer Mag. There just aren't many bands better at turning out the kinds of love songs that truly hit you. If you've ever longed for someone who's far away or far gone, if you've ever lost all hope that that certain special person would stop stringing you along, if you've ever found yourself dizzied and intoxicated in the throes of new love, this is a band that ought to speak to you. It's not just the lyrics (which are great) but also the way Tina brings them to life - her voice so full of fire yet still capable of incredible tenderness. And while by no means do I think the band is courting a mass audience, I wouldn't put a whole lot of limits on who might enjoy this album. "Just Can't Get Enough" recalls some of the power pop moments of the band's past, only cleaner and more accessible. "Need To Feel Your Love" and "Pure Desire" are surprisingly successful steps into funk/soul/disco territory. "Milk and Honey" is pure pop without apology. "Until You Find The One" is stripped down to almost nothing but pure despair - like many of the best Replacements ballads.

I would urge all of you who are Sheer Mag newbies to check out the compilation album first. If you dig it, then don't hesitate to dive into Need To Feel Your Love. Sheer Mag is certainly the "biggest" band I've touted in a very long time. But I will never hold critical acclaim against any band - especially one that never asked for it in the first place. I'll never understand people who complain about say, Rolling Stone only writing about crap bands and then still complain when they do feature good bands. Shouldn't we wish our favorite bands all of the success in the world? Sheer Mag is so unconcerned with self-promotion that it isn't even on social media. These five individuals have a built a following the old-fashioned way: by going out night after night and performing their hearts out for the people. They offer hope for all of us who believe that rock n' roll still has the power to change lives and perhaps even the world as well. To dismiss them because they've played Coachella and performed on national television would be the worst kind of cynicism. Yes, great bands still exist. And sometimes a lot of people like them. That sure sounds like something worth celebrating.



Monday, July 24, 2017

Retro Reviews: The Lillingtons - Death By Television

Review By Mick Fletcher

I was born in '64 in a northern English city and grew up listening to whatever chart fodder the radio deemed fit to play. This was back in the days before the internet provided easy access to music - even the UK music papers like Sounds, Melody Maker, and The New Musical Express still used quills on parchment. Then at age 13, I was introduced to a new type of music by one of the real cool kids in my class at school and my tastes changed overnight. For many years after that, if anyone was to ask me what my favourite album was, I'd either say The Clash's debut (or London Calling) or Stiff Little Fingers' Inflammable Material. Those seminal LPs are still pretty much perfect. But nowadays when I get asked that question, the answer is gonna be the album I'm reviewing today.

The Lillingtons are a pop punk band (as in proper old school pop punk, not the anodyne type that's so popular at the moment) from Newcastle, Wyoming who formed in 1995 and who despite long periods of inactivity are still around today (watch out for a new album later this year!!!). They released a debut album on Clearview Records in 1996 called Shit Out Of Luck. But it wasn't until three years later that they unleashed their piece de resistance, Death By Television. Produced by Mass Giorgini, it was released on March 30th, 1999 on the Ben Weasel/John Jughead owned Panic Button Records (Fat Wreck Chords wanted to release it but have had to wait almost 20 years to add The Lillingtons to their roster of acts. Fat Mike has said Death By Television is the best pop punk record of all time, and I ain't gonna argue with him). The lineup of the band has undergone several changes down the years, but on this album it featured ever present vocalist/guitarist Kody Templeman as well as bassist Cory Laurence and drummer Timmy V (Tim O'Hara).

The Lillingtons are often compared to the likes of The Ramones, Queers, and Screeching Weasel. But on Death By Television, they blow all their peers out of the water. The album is comprised of 14 (mostly) sci-fi themed classics. Cast your mind back to outlandish Saturday morning kids' TV shows, EC comics, '50s B movies...Think back to when you were a kid growing up desperately wanting the x ray spex that you saw advertised in your favourite comics ("lots of laughs and fun at parties"). Run and hide as the saucermen attack at lightning pace. Look up at the moon- there's an apeman up there having a bad day. There are so many fun things on there: aliens in flying silver discs that want to see us die, a crimefighting maggot that aspires to be a fly, plus songs about wanting to bang your head against the wall and the everyday horrors of a dead end job. It's not just the lyrical content that makes Death By Television so great. Lyrics would be nothing without a great backbeat, and the music on the album is pretty much perfect. Granted it doesn't deviate much from your typical Ramones-core low slung bass/guitar/drum template, but that's the beauty of it. It's simple, basic, and oh so effective. So many bands play this kind of music, but none do it as well as The Lillingtons.

Death By Television is just FUN FUN FUN. To paraphrase one of the songs, when I get up, you know I'm going to spend another 30 minutes with you. It never gets old; it never fails to thrill. The new album will be great. Whether it will come close to their masterpiece...that's virtually an impossible task, but fingers crossed!

-Mick Fletcher 


Friday, July 21, 2017

Retro Reviews: Izzy Stradlin & the Ju Ju Hounds – self titled

Review by Rob Sheley

November 1991: it is announced that Izzy Stradlin has left Guns N Roses. No one could have predicted what would happen next. Izzy has been called the heart and soul of the band that he helped form. It is no doubt that he was the Stones, Hanoi, Faces element that blended with Slash's love of Aerosmith and Duff's Damned & Heartbreakers leanings to create that unique sound. Upon his departure, what would they sound like and more importantly what would HE sound like? He was 29, finally clean, and rich enough to either retire comfortably or do whatever he wanted. He chose the latter.

Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds stands up as one of the best debut records in rock history, but it is not the players' first rodeo. Izzy recruited a brilliant band with a murderers' row of side men to assist. He ran as far away from Guns' direction as he could. Izzy's longest musical sidekick is Georgia Satellites guitarist Rick Richards - he has played on every single solo recording that he has released. Along with drummer Charlie Quintana (Plugz, Cruzados, and later Social Distortion) and bassist Jimmy Ashhurst (Broken Homes), that became the lineup. Sonically Izzy was to draw primarily from his love for The Rolling Stones, Faces, and The Clash- much more of the roll than rock and far removed from anything he had done before. Izzy Stradlin & The Ju Ju Hounds was released in October 1992, less than one year after his leaving the Illusion tour. The record is a combination of originals and influences. From the opening swagger of "Somebody Knocking" to the Clash informed cover of "Pressure Drop", the record is bursting with energy and uniqueness for the time. Supporting the band on seven of the 12 songs was Faces organ player, the great Ian McLagan. His contributions really aligned him as the unsung fifth member of the band. Special guest number two is Ron Wood performing on their cover of his solo track "Take A look A The Guy". Rounding out this star-studded list is Nicky Hopkins's incredible piano work on "Come On Now Inside"- a track that could have easily been an outtake from side 4 of Exile On Main St. It is really that good.

One must remember that in 1992, the musical landscape, despite Izzy's cache, was not ready to support a rock & roll record influenced by songs and bands from 20 years prior to its release. Even though the Black Crowes were enjoying success with their second record, I believe the public and the label were expecting and hoping for something closer to Appetite than Exile. Lead single "Shuffle It All" did catch a slight bit of MTV airplay, but the blazing rocker "Train Tracks" much less so. Despite a lack of commercial success, the band did tour the world with wider success coming from Europe and Japan. America was not so supportive. And due to this disappointment, Izzy stopped touring altogether to focus solely on recording.

Because of drug issues with Jimmy Ashhurst, the band was dissolved - with Izzy only keeping Rick along for the future. The record (and subsequent singles and live EP) is an all too brief snapshot. Their recorded output as this unit is incredible, no bad songs at all. The live Japanese EP is a much more stripped-down, raw, powerful version of the band. It contains a great version of the Stones' B-side "Jivin' Sister Fanny". And with all of the B-Sides and live tracks, there are enough songs to make what would have been a second record. The original record was re-pressed in 2016 on vinyl by the label Music On Vinyl with remastered sound. It is fairly easy to find. CD versions can be tracked down on eBay or Discogs for cheap. Try and get the version with the extra EP for three more songs.

Izzy has continued to record ever since 1992. Most of his work has been released in Japan, and later records have gone straight to iTunes. He has recorded nine records on his own. All spring forth from the groundwork laid down with this original lineup. Every time I see a used copy of the self-titled album, I buy it and keep in in my car to pass on to a like-minded individual. I'm shocked that the record is off everyone's radar despite the name printed on the top. This is the best place to start. And the sooner you do, the longer you will have to enjoy this nearly lost album.

-Rob Sheley

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Trampoline Team - "Drug Culture"

After all of these years of listening to and writing about punk rock, it's still a real kick for me to hear a new record that absolutely knocks my head off. There's just nothing better. Less than 20 seconds into Trampoline Team's new single "Drug Culture", I found myself exclaiming "YES!" at a volume completely inappropriate for indoor conversation. I am not one to argue about what is or is not punk rock. All I can tell you is that if someone came to me and asked, "What's punk rock?", I could very well just play them this single and be done with it. This is how you do it, man: pummeling buzz-saw guitars, a full-on fuck-you attitude, and a beat that compels furious head-bobbing. After getting totally floored by the A-side, I figured there had to be a slight drop-off with the B-side. Turns out the only thing dropping was my jaw. "I Don't Play Games" is every bit as good and could easily be mistaken for the "hit" if you didn't know any better. This single is a smasher! It sounds like it could have come out in the heyday of Rip Off Records or even the late '70s/early '80s. Buying it (or anything else) from Trampoline Team's Bandcamp will help fund the band's upcoming tour of Europe. For information on how to procure a physical copy, hit up the band on Facebook!



Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Basketball Shorts - "This Summer"

Earlier this year, I promised that "many" reviews of Jarama 45RPM Recs releases were forthcoming. It seems we are well on our way! The Madrid label's third release also marks its third appearance on this blog. Again Jarama 45RPM stays true to its mission to release strictly hit singles on 7" vinyl. Basketball Shorts' "This Summer" absolutely fits the bill - a true punk rock smash in my book. You may already know Basketball Shorts as Austin, Texas's finest "party punk" band. Call it party punk, pop-punk, pizza punk, slacker rock, or whatever else you desire. The point is that "This Summer" is just a wonderful song. It's probably not what you're expecting from this band. It's less of a party song and more of a "morning after the party" song - what you might be listening to in calm solitude as you nurse your hangover and reflect on how fleeting good times can be. This wistful number tugs at the heartstrings so effectively that it ought to be playing over the closing credits of a bittersweet cinematic love story. The inclusion of "Hot and Ready" (easily one of the greatest pop-punk songs of the present decade) on this EP is a master stroke of track selection given how nicely it complements "This Summer". There are times to be reflective, and then there are times to just crank it to 11 and have some fun! "Home", a perfect middle ground between the two aforementioned tracks, is a song that's exclusive to this release. Being a huge pop-punk fan going all the way back to the early '90s, I'm stoked to still hear bands like Basketball Shorts that remind me why I fell in love with this type of music in the first place. One thing you've gotta say about Bernando from Jarama 45RPM: he sure knows how to spot the hits!



Monday, July 17, 2017

Michael Monroe - The Best

Review by Rob Sheley

Think of the great frontmen. You don't have to like their music or the band (it helps), but they are undeniably captivating as they command a stage. Armed with great songs and a powerful band behind them, things can transcend. Names that come to mind: Iggy, Lux, HR, Keith Morris, Nick Cave, Freddie Mercury, Paul Stanley, Bowie, Jagger, (insert your favorite here), and Michael Monroe. Michael has been consistent if not anything else throughout his career. Rock & roll flows through him, and a sonic shockwave comes crashing out. My friend has said many times, "How can you not like a guy onstage singing rock & roll with a pink saxophone?" I completely agree. It has been stated many times by the band themselves that Guns & Roses exists because of Hanoi Rocks. If Hanoi was all Michael did, he would still be a legend. But fortunately he has been banging it out for 30 years past Hanoi, and this is a small slice of the fruits of those labors.

The Best is 29 songs total, including four previously unreleased tracks in addition to a new song called "One Foot Outta The Grave" with his current band lineup. The collection is very focused on Michael, so it is missing a few things. But those holes can be filled easily. What it doesn't have are any Hanoi Rocks songs from either period of the band. Sadly there are no songs from the one-off Jerusalem Slim project with Billy Idol foil Steve Stevens. It includes only two covers. Many of Michael's solo works include incredible covers from the Damned, Eddie & The Hot Rods, MC5, Leonard Cohen, Stooges, and many more. His interpretations are what you want - sometimes more faithful than others, but they are someone taking over the song and making it their own. Check out the Another Night In The Sun – Live In Helsinki release. That is a mix of covers and Hanoi songs, a great collection in its own right.

What The Best does have is a solid and perfect representation of Michael's solo work broken up over two discs. Disc 1 covers his first solo album from 1987's Nights Are So Long to 2003's Whatcha Want. It opens with one of the best statement songs money can buy, "Dead Jail Or Rock and Roll". It's as great as anything else that existed before or since. From '87-'03, Monroe released six albums and an EP. Every record is represented with the cream of the crop tracks from those releases. I'm sure the running time made some of the cuts difficult. But by and large, there is very little to complain about. His first period can be spotty because of the inconsistency of the players on the records. Michael can play everything, and I mean everything from guitar, vocals, and bass to his trademark harmonica and saxophone. It is at times stronger when he doesn't have to carry the entire weight of the album. Disc 1 also includes a tender duet with Stiv Bators, "It's A Lie". The song is a great tribute to his friend and great inspiration. The true meat are the four songs from 1994's Demolition 23, the only "band" type release included and the most songs from any one album of this time period. It's also the only record represented here that has been out of print since 1995. The band featured Sammy Yaffa and was produced by Little Steven. It is about as perfect of a project as Michael was ever able to put together post Hanoi. They had the sound, the songs, and a producer who was able to get the very best out of Michael and the band. "Nothin's Alright" & "Hammersmith Palais" are completely bulletproof, and it is sad that they have been buried this long and have not been covered by several bands since.

Disc 2 covers Michael's much more consistent current band. The unifying sound and very cohesive quality of this material covers only a six year period. There is nothing from 2002-2009 because that covers the Hanoi reboot that yielded three records with Andy McCoy. The band responsible for the tracks on disc 2 has been the main band Michael has been and is currently working with. From the beginning, Sammy Yaffa on bass, Karl Rockfist on drums, Steve Conte on guitar, and a revolving lead guitar spot that has been occupied by Ginger Wildheart, Dregen (Backyard Babies/Hellacopters), and currently Rich Jones (Black Halos). The pick of the Ginger tracks are represented here in the shape of "Trick Of The Wrist" & "'78". From the Dregen era, you get "Ballad Of The Lower East Side" & "Stained Glass Heart". 2015 happens: exit Dregen, enter Rich Jones, and you get a new injection of fresh blood and songs (very similar to the Demolition 23 stuff) like "Old Kings Road" & "Fist Fulla Dynamite". Included are four unreleased songs with Rich Jones and two closing covers. The first cover is an obscure song called "Get On" from the Finnish band Hurriganes (yes, that is spelled correctly). The original band is very Flamin' Groovies, and Michael's version just revs it up to Little Richard style madness. The closing track is his cover of "Magic Carpet Ride" by Steppenwolf,  featuring Slash. Originally released on the Coneheads soundtrack, this version is stronger and a bit rawer than what was released prior. Missing in action are guest vocal spots with Backyard Babies' "Rocker", his duet with Axl Rose on the Dead Boys' "Ain't It Fun", the benefit single "Pirates of the Baltic Sea", and bonus songs that were included on Japanese releases.

The Best is quite a slice to bite off and doesn't include any Hanoi Rocks material. Cleopatra has taken great care in properly re-releasing the early Hanoi catalogue in the box set Hanoi Rocks ‎– Strange Boys. It includes four studio albums and the incredible live from the Marquee club All Those Wasted Years. The final studio album Two Steps From The Move was re-released in 2015 by Rock Candy as a two-CD set.

Michael Monroe is a treasure to behold and a must explore for everyone. It is so very short-sighted to pin him as just a glam artist and say that what Hanoi Rocks were doing was the same as anyone else on the Sunset Strip. It was so much more rooted in rock & roll, punk, and early Alice Cooper. They were the perfect band that was tragically cut short when they were not yet 24 years old. Once all of the legal saber-rattling was done, Hanoi was asked if they would like to sue Vince Neil for the compensation of killing their bandmate. Unanimously the band said no. They felt that there was no price that they could accept that would be anything worth their friend's life. Because the band would not accept payment, Vince could not close the book on what he did and would have to live with the fact that he could not buy off the integrity of the band, therefore always knowing that they valued Razzle's life above money and the continuation of their band. That is why Michael Monroe has been great for over 30 years.

-Rob Sheley


Friday, July 14, 2017

Kris Rodgers - Losing The Frequency

It has already been 15 months since I first teased the arrival of Losing The Frequency - the new album from Kris "Fingers" Rodgers. Its release is finally upon us and has proven to be well worth the wait! Given that I make no apologies for my love of classic rock, it's hardly a shock that I'm so stoked on this album. Out on Rum Bar Records, Losing The Frequency is ten tracks of radio-worthy pop/rock/R & B that take me back to the glorious AOR of my youth.

The first thing that came to my mind with Losing The Frequency was how great it sounds. I immediately had to check who produced it. It turns out it was Rodgers himself in the producer's chair! So I have to correct what I've said about our man Fingers being a triple threat. He's actually a quadruple threat (at least!). Is there anything this guy can't do?! It's likely he will continue to get compared to Elton John for years to come, and not without good reason. But he's probably a little more like the new Leon Russell - a brilliant keyboard sideman who doubles as a formidable singer/songwriter in his own right. He has managed to carve out this very unique space for himself within our underground rock n' roll universe. It's very gratifying to see esteemed publications like Veglam and Uber Rock already offering accolades for his latest effort.

Several of Rodgers's collaborators on Losing The Frequency are themselves well acquainted with the fine art of pop/rock songwriting. Kurt Baker plays bass, Wyatt Funderburk mixed the album, and the amazing Zach Jones makes a guest appearance on guitar. Now that's a star-studded cast! What you have to admire is how Rodgers incorporates his friends' immense talents in support of a musical vision that's uniquely his. If 2014's Headlines established Rodgers as a promising new voice in piano-driven rock, Losing The Frequency is where he fully comes into his own as an artist. Ably backed by The Dirty Gems (on this release Baker, Craig Sala, and Tom Hall), Rodgers has made a record that can stand toe-to-toe with those of his musical heroes.

With just a few notable exceptions, all of the songs here hover right around the four-minute mark. That's right on par for the '70s/'80s era of radio rock from which Rodgers draws so heavily. Yet nothing about what he does sounds stale or bloated. With his booming, soulful voice and hook-laden songwriting style, Rodgers makes classic rock sound timeless instead of dated. Even the grandiose Queen-style epic "Who's Gonna Save You Now" leaves me wanting more - quite a feat for an eight-minute track! I like how there are small touches (the gospel backups on "I Know", the smooth saxophone on "Black Widow") that bring to mind certain excesses of the '80s, yet Rodgers never strays far from a foundation of memorable choruses and strong melodies. "Rock N' Roll Radio" fittingly sounds like a radio hit from an era when the radio still played hits. "Black Widow", the elegant piano ballad from 2014's Whiskey & Soda, gets the full rock treatment here and was a fine choice for the album's lead single. The snappy "Overrated" puts a fresh spin on the '70s heyday of singing piano men. And even when Rodgers gets to show off his tremendous keyboard skills on a number like "No Place To Go", it's completely in service of the song.

Losing The Frequency is an album that breathes new life into the classic rock form. Simply put, Kris Rodgers has a great voice and writes fantastic songs. Regardless of whatever else changes in the musical landscape, talent never goes out of style. Like label mates Watts, Rodgers creates music that will appeal not only to those of us who were weaned on the classics, but also to a whole new generation of fans. Losing The Frequency is available now as a digital release - with CDs coming very soon!