Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sugar Stems are back!

Every time I sit down to write up an "official" list of my favorite bands, Sugar Stems are always somewhere near the top. The last time I composed such a list, I had them at #2. So it comes as no surprise that I would be raving about the Milwaukee outfit's new album - out today on Dirtnap Records. But while I usually laud bands for adhering like glue to tried-and-true formula, Sugar Stems have won me over by doing exactly the opposite. The band's debut LP was textbook bubblegum power pop - and a true classic of its form. I would not have complained about another album or two in a similar vein. But this band has never been content to repeat itself, and it was 2012's Can't Wait that started to give us an idea of who Sugar Stems truly were. Now the band has fully come into its own on the stunning Only Come Out At Night. No longer defined by influences or genre, this is a band we all love because of its unique talents and remarkable flair for perfect melodies. Sugar Stems, at this point, sound like Sugar Stems. Betsy is one of the best songwriters out there - and a superb and distinctive singer on top of that!

Only Come Out At Night is the full realization of everything that was promised on Can't Wait. It feels like such bad form to use the term "masterpiece" to describe an album that was just released 20 minutes ago. But, you know, it actually is a masterpiece! Not only has Betsy written the best songs of her life, but she's written so many of them that one might mistake this album for a greatest hits collection! And from a production standpoint, this is the best-sounding record I've heard in quite some time. While the band name still conjures thoughts of lighthearted cutesy fun, for the most part this is a far more serious and mature record than you're probably expecting. And I mean that in an entirely good way. This is an album that proves that power pop can "grow up" without losing the things that made it great in the first place. The hooks are bigger, the melodies are more beautiful, and just about every song ought to be a hit (seriously, why isn't "The One" all over the radio?!). Betsy sings about real life issues we can all relate to - her fears, her frustrations, her hopes and dreams. And her voice, while still sweet as punch, resonates with a confidence and power that could not have been foreseen a few years ago. And the band as a whole has never sounded better - propelled by Jon's dynamic drumming and strengthened by the addition of Andy Harris (ex Goodnight Loving) on keyboards.

Opening with the pretty, refined pop tracks "Baby Teeth" and "I Know Where I'm Going", Only Come Out At Night wastes little time in showcasing the maturity of Betsy's songcraft. But just when you think you've figured out exactly what kind of record this is going to be, it proceeds to surprise you with wonderful, unexpected turns. This album, it turns out, has a little bit of everything - from the '60s girl group splendor of "Some Might Say" to the rootsy rock n' roll of "Haunted" (featuring Drew on lead vocals) to the racing adrenaline of "Run Run Rabbit" to the crunching pop-rock of "Radio Heartthrob" to the lush acoustic radiance of "Million Miles". It's the kind of album that satisfies immediately - yet becomes even more enjoyable after repeated listens. And while it has the hooks and melodies to win over power pop diehards in a heartbeat, it's not strictly a genre record. I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who loves melody or great music in general. The band has made a free stream of Only Come Out At Night available, and I think that's a brilliant idea. People are going to hear this album and want to own it - along with gift copies for various friends and family. Is it too early to say Sugar Stems have locked up album of the year?



Friday, July 18, 2014

Meet Latex Squad!

Whoa! I've got a good one for you today! Latex Squad's bio says they are "a German '77 punk band that formed in a cold and stinky band practice room in March 2014." And that's it. The bio, like the band's music, is stripped down to the barest essentials. You might wonder how a band could have just formed in March and already had a record out by June - but Latex Squad has totally pulled it off! And although this is Germany 2014, it sounds quite a bit like England 1977...mixed with early Rip Off Records. Co-released by the great German labels Wanda and P.Trash Records, Latex Squad's debut EP is an absolute smoker! None of the four tracks come close to hitting two minutes, and the material (especially "Pest Is Black" and "Powerwalk") is top-notch for such a new band. This is how I like it - fast, raw, and catchy punk rock that makes me want to sing along and pogo like a fool in my bedroom! This is a band that understands that having really simple material and bargain basement production doesn't mean you have to sound like crap. When I think of the great bands of Germany, The Kidnappers and Modern Pets come to mind. Latex Squad fit it quite well with those two bands, and I hope we will be hearing much more from this trio in the near future. In the meantime, enjoy this crackling debut!



Monday, July 14, 2014

Dial Tone!

So prolific and consistently good that he's sometimes taken for granted, Steve Adamyk seems to be a victim of his own excellence. Maybe if he only managed one album every five years, the arrival of a new one would be cause for mass celebration and perhaps even a national holiday in Canada. But Dial Tone, out now on Dirtnap Records, is the fourth Steve Adamyk Band album in five years. Perhaps it's just my perception, but it seems like these last couple of albums have not been fully appreciated. The things Adamyk sometimes gets criticized for (e.g. too many songs sound the same, he's "only good at one thing") are exactly the things I like about him! If you feel the same way, you'll be happy to discover that Dial Tone is very much in the same vein as all previous albums from the Steve Adamyk Band. But if you think that Steve Adamyk just keeps making the same record over and over, you're not paying very close attention.

Granted, Steve Adamyk's "thing" is that he writes catchy power pop punk songs and plays them really fast. But I like that each album takes a little bit of a different angle. 2011's Forever Won't Wait went in more of a pop direction, while last year's Third was racing punk rock adrenaline. And now with Dial Tone, Steve and the gang offer a record that should go over great with today's garage crowd. The album was recorded by Matthew Melton (Warm Soda/Bare Wires), who definitely put his own stamp on it. If Warm Soda often comes off a little too laid back for my tastes and the Steve Adamyk Band could sometimes afford to give its hooks a little more room to breathe, then it goes to figure that this collaboration would strike the perfect balance. And it does! Dial Tone is a classic Steve Adamyk Band album with the muffled fidelity of a Warm Soda record. There are a few tracks (like "Suicide" and "Mirror Ball") that actually start off sounding like they might be Warm Soda songs - but then the vocals come in and you know exactly which band you're listening to! The light speed tempos maintained throughout Third have been dialed back just a little - resulting in an album that's not quite as dizzying but still snappy and energetic. Adamyk is a master at crafting punchy, hook-laden pop tunes - and front to back this is as good of a collection of songs as he's ever delivered. "Careless", "Last In Town", and "Empty Cause" are the kinds of songs Steve Adamyk has been turning out for years - and will hopefully continue to turn out for years to come. And perhaps because there aren't as many super fast songs on this record, breakneck numbers like "Waiting For the Top" and "Anne" really crackle.

Even with its top shelf material and Melton's nifty production touches (a handclap here, a sprinkle of synth there), Dial Tone would not be the record it is without such a tremendous performance by the band as a whole. The revamped four piece lineup that energized the band's sound on Third has found another gear on Dial Tone - tearing into these tunes with confidence and purpose. On the heels of great albums from Sonic Avenues and Mother's Children, Dial Tone reaffirms what a huge difference a killer rhythm section can make with this kind of music. This album essentially combines the best aspects of the previous two with additional hints of things to come (a couple songs nearly hit the three-minute mark!). I think it's by far the band's best album to date. There may be a time when Adamyk abandons the Buzzcocks/Ramones/Dickies songwriting template and stuns his fans with something completely different. But I'm in no hurry for that to happen. If you play this kind of music yourself, you know how hard it can be to write really simple songs. Adamyk seems to do it effortlessly - and his gift should be celebrated.



Thursday, July 10, 2014

Piss Test Returns!

Piss Test's phenomenal debut EP was no fluke! A year and a half after exploding on the scene with one of 2013's most essential 7" releases, the Portland punk trio has come through with a debut album so epic that they had to give it two titles - LP1 out on Jonnycat Records and Biggest Band In Europe out on Germany's Taken By Surprise Records. No word yet on a North Korean title.

To recap: Piss Test is Zachary (Red Dons, Scott Baio Army, Soda Pop Kids), Samantha (Dottie Attie), and Rodrigo (Red Shadows). Zachary is described as "Portland's angriest man", and he more than lives up to that billing on this 13-song smasher of an album. In its willingness to opine on numerous matters of the day without any regard for political correctness or common decency, Piss Test recalls classic punk bands such as Fear and the Angry Samoans. But if you've previously written Piss Test off as a "joke band", LP1 will swiftly correct that misconception. Sure, there's still much hilarity to be heard in songs like "Nico Goes To Goth Night" and "Don't Let Nazis Do Your Taxes" (excellent advice, actually!). But with this release, Piss Test show that they're not always joking. The band has some very serious things to say about topics such as urban gentrification, poverty, the travails of aging punks, and the extreme sacrifices you have to make if you desire a life in music - and on vocals Zachary puts forth those ideas with ferocity and conviction. He sounds genuinely worked-up, and at times even maniacal! Musically, the band continues to combine the best elements of Killed By Death comps and early '80s punk/hardcore with hints of late '90s garage trash. And with ripping sing-along anthems like "Macy's", "Everybody", and "Rob Starts A Class War", Piss Test will delight oldsters like me and younger punks alike. There was a time in punk music when being angry didn't necessarily equate to being humorless- and Piss Test are true throwbacks to those days. They sound like they could have stepped out of a portal from 1981 - yet the subject matter they tackle is completely relevant to what's happening now. As long as there's still so much in this world to rail against and/or make fun of, we will always need groups like Piss Test.

The last time I wrote about Piss Test, I referred to them as the "best new band of the year". And since then, they've stepped up their songwriting and delivered a truly great debut album. The interplay between guitar and bass sounds amazing, and Zachary is quickly becoming one of the best punk singers out there. And hats off to Maus Merky (recording) and Hajji Husayn (mastering) for their outstanding work in the studio! If you, like me, wish there were more bands these days playing straight-up snotty punk rock, I hereby command you to acquire a copy of LP1!



Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Ladies and gentlemen, The Shanghais!

You know how I called this the summer of power pop? I wasn't kidding! And not all of it is coming from Canada! The Shanghais hail from Oakland, California and make perfect summertime power pop rock n' roll! With a new 7" out on No Rules Records plus another one out today on the great Italian label Surfin' Ki, The Shanghais ought to be ruling the turntable at your backyard barbeques and pool parties all summer long. And if your friends don't appreciate such fine music, get some new friends!

The Shanghais' sound is classic bubblegum punk informed by '60s girl groups and the Ramones by way of the Beach Boys. Yeah, I know that sounds awesome! On lead vocals, the talented Natalie Sweet brings the ideal blend of exuberance and spunk. And musically, the Shanghais are high energy and pure fun all the way! What's not to love? Combining minimalist production with high spirited harmonies and a veritable sugar rush of melodies, the still-new "Pretty Mean" EP will delight fans of Nikki and the Corvettes, Super*Teem era Donnas, and early Bobbyteens. Your summer 2014 playlist better include "Missed Connection" - otherwise it sucks! And as the video for "Sick Of You" (see below) indicates, the Shanghais have even better things in store for us with their second single! Check out their Bandcamp page for free streams of both EPs along with super smash bonus track "Too Cool To Cry". And check in with Surfin' Ki Records for ordering info on the very limited "Sick Of You" vinyl. Woo hoo! I just might have a new favorite band!



Monday, July 7, 2014

Retro Reviews: Jackie Brentson - The Mistreater

As far as "retro" reviews go, it doesn't get much more retro than this! Jackie Brentson's claim to fame is having written and sung lead on (arguably) the very first rock n' roll song - 1951's "Rocket 88". Granted, it's hard to dispute that "Rocket 88" is the shining star of Brentson's catalog. Yet he deserves better than to be remembered as a mere footnote in music history. While hardly worth the exorbitant price tag it's fetching on Amazon (somewhere in the neighborhood of $50), Rev-Ola Bandstand's 24-track retrospective The Mistreater is well worth owning if you can nab it for a decent price.

The story behind "Rocket 88" is legendary. It was March 1951, and a 19-year-old Ike Turner traveled with his Kings of Rhythm from Clarksdale, Mississippi to Memphis to record with a young Sam Phillips. This was a year before Phillips founded Sun Records - when he was still leasing his studio's recordings to labels like Chess and Modern Records. It was Phillips who insisted that the recording session go on in spite of guitarist Willie Kizart's damaged amplifier. A quick fix was to stuff some paper in the amp cone - and in that instant the distorted fuzztone guitar sound of rock n' roll was born by pure happenstance. The band recorded a number of songs - some featuring Turner on lead vocals and some featuring second sax player Brentson on lead vocals. The prize of the session was "Rocket 88" - essentially a rewrite of Jimmy Liggins' 1947 jump blues number "Cadillac Boogie". Phillips unscrupulously credited the track to "Jackie Brentson and his Delta Cats" and sold the masters off to Chess Records. Turner, with great justification, was pissed. "Rocket 88" went on to become a massive hit - going to #1 on the R & B charts. With its pounding piano, driving beat, wailing sax, and raw vocal, it's viewed by some as the precise moment in history when up-tempo blues became rock n' roll. Sadly, stardom would be fleeting for Brentson. His second single "My Real Gone Rocket" - an attempt to re-create the magic of "Rocket 88" - was a total flop. He soon parted ways with Turner and had little success on his own - issuing three more failed singles on Chess. By 1953 he was a side man again, playing saxophone for Lowell Fulson. Brentson reunited with Turner in 1955 as a salaried sax player. He did sing lead on two singles with the Kings of Rhythm, but Turner forbade him from singing "Rocket 88" on stage.

Brentson would remain in Turner's employ until 1962. After a couple more failed attempts at solo hits, Brentson more or less gave up on his musical career by 1963. He returned to Clarksdale, found work as a truck driver, and faded into oblivion. He passed away in a veterans' hospital in Memphis in 1979 at the far-too-young age of 49. The Mistreater, which includes not just his Chess singles but also those later Federal sides, reminds us that Jackie Brenston was far more than a one-hit wonder. "My Real Gone Rocket", in spite of its failure to chart, was a raucous cut and a formidable sequel to "Rocket 88" (Turner on piano was likely a big influence on Jerry Lee Lewis). And Brentson's 1956 sides with The Kings of Rhythm are all overlooked gems. "Much Later" and "Gonna Wait For My Chance" compare favorably with Little Richard's early hits, while "What Can It Be" is doo-wop gold. It's the inclusion of those particular tracks that separates The Mistreater from earlier Brentson collections that only compile his Chess sides. No doubt his best work was done in collaboration with Turner, and there's no telling what the two of them might have been able to achieve together if old Ike hadn't carried such a grudge. Far more than a mere journeyman, Brentson was a fine singer and more than a bit player in the rise of rock n' roll. If "Rocket 88" is all you know of him, there's more to be heard.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Return of The Putz!

If The Putz seems like the perfect name for a pop-punk band, then it makes total sense that this Indianapolis trio has made one of the best pop-punk albums of recent years! Out on Eccentric Pop Records, Knock It Off throws it back two decades to the heyday of leather jacket punk. Building on a foundation of thumping power chords, two-part harmonies, punchy bass lines, and eternal Ramones worship, The Putz prove that pop-punk will never need to be reinvented as long as it's flawlessly executed. Billy, Tyler, and Dougie are one hell of a tight combo, and they bash out those three chords with thundering power and crisp precision. By all means this is a band following in the footsteps of The Queers and Screeching Weasel - a legacy these guys fully embrace without coming off like uninspired copycats.  

Knock It Off is great fun for a couple of reasons. First of all, the energy and enthusiasm of The Putz's buzzsaw attack could win over all but the most fervent haters of pop-punk. And perhaps even more importantly, the material is so genuinely good that refraining from singing along becomes a near impossible task. If you can resist the urge to join the chorus to "That's Okay" or "Lunatic", I might have to ask you to turn in your Chuck Taylors. With songs topics such as fast food, procrastination, crazy girls, and malfunctioning brains, The Putz have clearly endeavored to make a textbook pop-punk record. Yet I don't get the sense that I've heard this album 500 times before. The Putz add their own style to the mix - and there's something distinctly Midwestern about these guys' humor and unpretentious attitude. Even when the influences are obvious ("Two Strikes"), I don't feel like I'd be better off just listening to my well-worn cassette copy of My Brain Hurts.

Sometimes a good record is just a good record, and sometimes a good record makes you want to go out and see a band live. I'd definitely put Knock It Off in the latter category. I can just tell that The Putz are the kind of live band that will put a huge smile on your face. They will be touring extensively across the U.S.A. this month in support of this new album - and you will not want to miss them if pop-punk is your thing. If your record shelf is full of titles by bands like the Riverdales, Teen Idols, and Lillingtons, Knock It Off belongs right there with 'em. Vinyl is limited to 250 copies, so hop to it!