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!


Friday, October 19, 2018

Cold Stereo - Demo 2018

One recent pattern of mine that I'm looking to break is that I've been writing almost entirely about bands I've reviewed before. Of course I'm gonna cover my favorites, but I've been a little lax about touting new talent. And when it comes to new talent, it doesn't get much newer (or more talented) than Cold Stereo. This Cincinnati-based foursome "dropped" its demo on Bandcamp just last week, and within hours Shawn Abnoxious alerted me to its crankworthiness. He was not wrong!

Having come of age as a young punk rocker in the '90s, I have a certain emotional attachment to demos. There's just something really awesome about hearing a band on its way up, and I love that the technology exists for bands like Cold Stereo to share their demo recordings with the world. And come on, what do you have to lose? This is free music! A certain amount of mystery surrounds Cold Stereo, and I kind of like it that way. I don't have to worry about being influenced by what other people might have written about this band. I don't know much about Cold Stereo besides recognizing Todd Uttley's name from the equally awesome SUBSETS. But I must say that I like what I'm hearing! Cold Stereo doesn't really sound like any other band. There's a plus right off the bat! They can actually pull off punk rock with keyboards, which is something not a lot of bands can do. A lot of these songs kinda walk that fine line between punk and new wave in a manner that would be satisfying to fans of either. Right away, "We're Gonna Take This To Heart" has a great energy to it. It's upbeat and fun and instantly worthy of blasting loud. "I Need A New Head" seems like a message that most of us can relate to. "The People Are Going Bananas" ought to be the new national anthem. "Run From the Sun" is post-punk that pays just as much attention to the "punk" as it does to the "post".

So here's your opportunity to get in on the ground floor with Cold Stereo! If it drives you crazy with guilt to download free music, you could certainly toss the band a few bucks. Or maybe you could just pinky swear to buy Cold Stereo's debut record in the near future. I will have my eyes and ears primed for further updates from Cold Stereo HQ. 17 likes so far on Facebook? I foreee that number reaching at least 20 by the end of the weekend! Ohio. Always. Wins.


Thursday, October 18, 2018

RunHideFight - "He's A Jerk"

Now this is how you make a debut! RunHideFight is a band out of Philadelphia that played its first show on October 28th of last year. "He's A Jerk" is the group's first single, out now on Hidden Volume Records. While this particular band is new, all of its members have extensive resumes in rock n' roll. Singer/guitarist Geeta Dalal Simons (Rockula, Swisher) was a fixture of the Philly garage scene for years. She took some time off from music after her children were born, but now she's back with this red-hot new garage/punk outfit. Famously, she recorded the first RunHideFight demo in her kids' playroom! Joining her is an all-star cast of players including John "Brother JT" Terlesky (Creatures of the Golden Dawn and Original Sins) on lead guitar, Christine Weiser (Mae Pang) on bass, and Jon Kois (Three 4 Tens, Marah) on drums.

RunHideFight's debut single will delight fans of '60s garage rock, but it also brings an element of originality that you don't often hear in three-chord rock n' roll. Simon plays a custom-made double neck 24 string guitar/sitar - which serves as a dual homage to her Indian heritage and her guitar hero Rick Nielsen. RunHideFight draws inspiration not just from the legendary bands of '60s garage/psych/mod, but also from the classical Indian music that influenced a lot of those bands. Add in a love for '70s punk and early Cheap Trick, and you've got a band that I am very excited to follow in the coming years! "He's a Jerk" is a straight-ahead garage ripper that ought to get you dancing regardless of where you are or what you're doing. Simons absolutely nails the vocal with some first-rate howling a la Joan Jett or Paula Pierce. I love that that riff is catchy and super tough. And how great is that solo?! On the flip, "Because I Love You" slows the pace a tad but really shows what RunHideFight can do with garage rock. It starts off sounding like Thee Headcoatees if they re-wrote "Kicks", then swings half way across the world to India, and then dives back into some fuzzy '60s garage riffs. It's almost like three songs in one, yet it works beautifully. I love the sinister tone of the song, and those backing vocals are just glorious!

The beauty of garage rock is that it lends itself so well so the single format. RunHideFight has debuted with a pair of killer tracks that you'll want to spin over and over. The only down side about being left wanting more is that you're...left wanting more! The good news is that RunHideFight recorded several songs for The Key Studio Sessions earlier this year. You can hear those songs and read more about the band here! I'm not just being a partisan Pennsylvanian here: If you love rock n' roll, this is a band you need in your life!


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Peawees - Moving Target

Is it just me, or do The Peawees just keep getting better with age? Over the past 23 years, this Italian foursome has established itself as one of the most electrifying live rock n' roll acts in Europe or anywhere else for that matter. Over the course of several lineup changes, singer/guitarist Hervé Peroncini has kept The Peawees going strong and proven himself to be an exceptional songwriter. And while the band's earlier, more straight-forward punk releases remain enjoyable listens, more recent albums such as Walking the Walk and Leave It Behind are at another level entirely. Over the last decade, The Peawees have really found their ideal sound in soulful rock n' roll with pop hooks. Moving Target, out now on Wild Honey Records in Italy and Rum Bar Records in the USA, is the band's sixth album and first in seven years. I'm not gonna beat around the bush: this is The Peawees' best album!

Moving Target is the first Peawees LP to feature the current rhythm section of Fabio Clemente and Tommy Gonzalez, who have been on board since 2013. The band has never sounded better, and Peroncini has written a tremendous batch of songs. The massive, wall-of-sound production (courtesy of Brown Barcella and Alessio Lonati at TUP Studio in Brescia) has nearly every one of these tracks sounding like a lost radio hit from the late '70s or early '80s. I was instantly blown away when I heard lead single "Stranger" back in April, and I'm happy to report that it was no fluke. The Motown-inspired opening track "Walking Through My Hell" is every bit as good and really kicks off the album with a bang. "Christine" is a '50s rock n' roll meets new wave bopper a la Dave Edmunds or today's The Connection/New Trocaderos. "Justify" is a great mid-tempo soul/pop number that sounds like something Graham Parker might have written in his prime. "As Long As You Can Sleep" has that big, anthemic feel of Springsteen circa The River. And to pull it all together, "Til My Mojo Works" shows that The Peawees can still do raucous, high energy rock n' roll with the best of 'em.

I'll apply this metaphor since The Peawees are big Clash fans: if This Is Rock 'n' Roll and Dead End City were their self-titled, these last couple of albums are more like their London Calling. More than two decades into their existence, The Peawees are at the absolute peak of their powers. And they've cultivated a sound that melds rock n' roll, punk, pop, soul, and garage into one cohesive ball of fire. In a year packed with essential LP releases, Moving Target is one of the most essential.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Safes - A Tribute To Juliana Hatfield

So this really happened! The Safes, one of my favorite bands, went into the studio with the rhythm section from Material freaking Issue (one of my three favorite bands EVER)! And the producer was Steve Albini?! Holy smokes! Even if I did not enjoy the music of Juliana Hatfield, I would have been super stoked about this record! But let's not bury the lede here. What stands out the most to me about A Tribute To Juliana Hatfield is that these are such great songs! Ultimately the whole point of a successful tribute project is to honor the source material, and this one does that brilliantly.

When presented with the opportunity to record this single for American Laundromat Records, the brothers O'Malley jumped at the chance. They are huge fans of Juliana Hatfield and the label as well. The involvement of Ted Ansani, Mike Zelenko, and Albini was just a (really cool) bonus! For this project, they chose to cover "Universal Heart-Beat" from 1995's Only Everything and "I See You" from 1992's Hey Babe. I appreciate that The Safes managed to put their own signature on these songs while still remaining largely faithful to the original versions. "Universal Heart-Beat" is a bona fide alt-rock classic, and The Safes don't mess with it too much. I like the cool, Lou Reed-ish vocals, but otherwise the original style of the song is followed to a T. There's just no point in playing around with that chorus - one of the catchiest and most memorable of its time. And I love that little sprinkling of Wurlitzer. In preparation for this review, I went back and listened to the original several times. What really strikes me is how well it holds up after 23 years and just how underrated Juliana Hatfield is as a songwriter. "I See You" goes back even further to Hatfield's first solo album. I would say it's a hidden gem of her catalog. But being huge fans, The Safes were well aware of that! Again they follow the general melody and structure of the original, but they really do put a Safes stamp on the song. The original sounds so innocent and bubbly, whereas the O'Malleys give it a more mature and modern reading. If you didn't already know this was a Juliana Hatfield song, you could easily believe this was something The Safes wrote themselves. And of course after multiple listens to both versions this week, what really sticks with me is what an earworm that melody is! If you didn't know it already, know it now: Juliana Hatfield writes damn good pop songs!

A Tribute To Juliana Hatfield is available only on vinyl from American Laundromat Records, and it's limited to just 500 copies. Given that these are songs from twenty-some years ago, this might be an opportunity for a whole new generation to discover Hatfield's back catalog. And certainly some of Hatfield's fans might end up coming to love The Safes - in my opinion one of the greatest American rock n' roll bands going. Hatfield herself was thrilled with these two tracks, and no doubt she sensed the tremendous affection the O'Malleys have for the original versions. This whole project is all about a genuine love for music, and that's something I can always get behind. Did I get goosebumps hearing those drums and bass? You betcha!


Saturday, October 13, 2018

Hakan - III

If sequels are rarely as good as the original, are sequels to sequels even less likely to satisfy? If so, Hakan is definitely defying the odds. This Turkish Italian trio burst onto the scene in 2015 with a debut album that was seemingly made for my tastes. Hakan was everything I loved about trashy garage-punk and catchy powerpop combined into one record, with a fictitious band back story adding tremendous entertainment value. A year later, Hakan II arrived sounding like an even better version of its predecessor. Now we get Hakan III, released on One Chord Wonder in Italy and Brassneck Records in the UK. And to my absolute delight, the band continues to adhere to the same formula and gimmick. Am I dissatisfied with Hakan for essentially making the same record yet again? No way! I would only be dissatisfied with them if they didn't!

III is exactly what I want from a Hakan record: fast, tuneful punk with only two of 13 tracks exceeding two minutes. And I can honestly say that it's as good as I and II. If you were a fan of those first two albums, you can expect much more of what you liked. If you've never heard Hakan before, this is as good of a place to start as any. As always, I appreciate that the band can write lyrics that make me chuckle. While "TV Mood" is hardly the first song to lament humanity's enslavement to the television medium, it seems especially on-point in this era of binge-watching. The lines "Stop calling me on the phone/My fingers pushing buttons/Remote control/Got a fridge full of beers and tacos" describe my own life all too well! Meanwhile, the drunken visions in "I Saw God" reveal this about the maker of the universe: "He wears a peacock suit and long white hair/He's a Mod". For fans of the conceptual side of Hakan, songs like "King of Edoné" and "Pita for Breakfast" continue the story-line that goes back to the first album. The band has actually furnished cartoons to help explain the songs, which you can find on its Facebook page.

Clocking in at less than 21 minutes, Hakan III keeps you whistling along and tapping your toes without ever wearing out its welcome. There are no real surprises or attempts at progression, and yet to the band's credit I still find myself wanting more. I could probably go for another four or five installments in the Hakan saga, and I'd still be offering rave reviews. It's doubtful they'll ever take it that far, but I've at least got my fingers crossed for a Hakan IV!


Friday, October 12, 2018

Extra Arms - Headacher

Depending on how you look at it, Headacher is either the fourth Extra Arms album or the very first. "Extra Arms" was originally a humorous nod to Ryan Allen serving as his own backing band on his solo endeavors. Allen, former singer/guitarist for Thunderbirds Are Now!, made three solo LPs using the Extra Arms handle. Then something really cool happened: the backing band Allen assembled to play live shows in support of his last solo album Basement Punk clicked so terrifically that a new permanent band was born. And just like that, Ryan Allen and His Extra Arms became...just Extra Arms! The band members are Allen, Michael Gallacher (guitar), Ryan Marshall (bass), and Sean Sommer (drums). Headacher, then, is the debut release from Extra Arms. It retains many of the characteristics of Allen's solo albums. But with this album, you definitely get the sense that you're listening to a proper rock band. And sonically, that lifts Extra Arms fully into the realm of mid-to-late '90s alt-rock/power pop.

If Basement Punk was Allen's nod to early '90s college radio, Headacher pushes forward a few years to the cleaner, crunchier sound of alt-rock greats like Sugar and Superdrag. The guitars are cranked way up, and the band elicited an absolutely massive sound from producer Geoff Michael and mixing/mastering superstar Paul Miner. But at the heart of the album are the same qualities that made Allen's solo records so appealing: memorable melodies, meaningful lyrics, and tremendously likable vocals. None of these things are lost amidst the wall of guitars and pristine backing vocals. If anything, the added oomph of a tight, powerful band heightens the impact of these songs. "Why I Run" is the type of song Allen has always done so well: taking something meaningful to his life and allowing you to feel its importance. But with the full force of Extra Arms behind it, "Why I Run" comes off like a pump-up song for the ages. Even if you're not a runner, you can easily relate this song to anything in your life that brings you purpose and exhilaration. I'm adding this one to my gym playlist for sure! Elsewhere songs address topics ranging from cultural ("Done To Death") to personal ("Honey Brown") to even political ("Push the Button"), and it's all don well. For me personally, this is an album that takes me back to a time when alternative rock was just freaking awesome. The moment those Superchunk-ish guitars kicked in on "Headacher", I knew I was in for a treat. The influence of Bob Mould is all over "Done To Death", and that can never be a bad thing. "You Make The Life You Want" sounds like a missing track from Goo Goo Dolls' Superstar Car Wash. "Honey Brown" brings to mind the melodious guitar pop of Teenage Fanclub or even Allen's buddy Nick Piunti. "The Last One" may set off your "token sensitive acoustic number" alarm, but you'll have a hard time denying that it's an absolutely magnificent song.

Will fans of Ryan Allen's solo releases love Headacher just as much? I have no doubt! But it's with good reason that Allen's name is no longer attached to the Extra Arms moniker. Headacher, far from one man's creative vision, is the collective effort of an exceptional rock band. These guys wrote and recorded this record together, and they absolutely knocked it out of the park (what's the appropriate running metaphor? Lapped the field?). Headacher releases today on Get Party! Records. Save it some prized shelf space next to your well-worn copies of Regretfully Yours, File Under: Easy Listening, and The Colour and the Shape.


Monday, October 8, 2018

Mandates - Dead In The Face

We've gotten to that time of the year where the great new releases are coming hot and heavy. Having reviewed a number of essential LPs last month, I was wondering if I had anything good saved up for October. Well of course I did! I've been a big Mandates fan for a few years now, and it's good to hear new music from this Calgary foursome for the first time since 2015. Dead In The Face is the band's third album, and my main impression of this thing is that it's so much fun! As a huge fan of '77 style punk, I am stoked to hear a band pull off that sound so well in 2018. A la Mandates' previous album In The Back of Your Heart, the 10-track Dead In The Face draws from both the glam-influenced and power pop leaning sides of '70s punk. It's really a perfect mixture of both, with ripping guitars and big pop hooks sharing the spotlight. The band comes out throwing fire on lead track "Baby, I'm An Outsider", then quickly shifts into sing-along mode on the infectious "Ramalama June". "On The Run" wears its glam rock influences on its sleeve, and that's definitely a good thing! Songs such as "Talkin' To Your Friends" and "Louder Than The Boys" really typify what I like about this album - they're raucous and rockin' yet totally fun and catchy. And a la the last record's "Phantasmagoria", "Any Good Western" is a five-minute epic that stands as one of the album's highlights.

Don't let the cover art fool you into thinking Dead In The Face is some sort of horror punk type deal. It's very much a similar album to In The Back of Your Heart, but I think the band really stepped up its game for this release. Again Mandates are the missing link between The Boys and Dead Boys, with some Sweet/Slade worship thrown in for good measure. Invite some friends over, put on this album, and you've got yourself a party for sure!


Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Control Freaks - Double Dose Of Hate

Photo by David Greenfield
Wait, The Control Freaks are putting out another single? How about that: I am the bearer of good news! Their last single, "I Am Crime", just came out last month on Bachelor Records (Order it here!). Next up is Double Dose of Hate, due out November 2 on the fabulous Dirty Water Records. This single literally IS a double dose of hate, as both tracks are odes guessed it...hate! Who can't get behind that?! Sherrilynn Nelson (formerly keyboardist for The Omens) loved The Control Freaks so much that she learned guitar just so she could join the band. "Time's Up" from the last single was her CF songwriting debut. Double Dose of Hate opens with another song she penned called "I Hate Your Face". That's a damn fine title, and sure enough the song lives up to it! I can never get enough of this sort of old-style catchy punk rock, and I really dig the back-and-forth exchange between Sherrilynn and Greg. For a song about hate, those lyrics are surprisingly profound. And about 99 out of 100 humans will fully relate to that line "I'm still in love with you/But I hate your face". On the flip, "Hatelist" has a nastier edge to it and brings to mind Greg's late, great band Zodiac Killers. This one will have you pumping your fist and shouting along in fervent dedication to everyone who's ever wronged you or otherwise pissed you off. Those lyrics are so hilariously scathing that I feel Greg is entitled to some sort of literary prize!

When it comes to garage punk in the year 2018, The Control Freaks are showing everyone how it's done. Double Dose of Hate is their fourth single - and in my opinion their best yet. I say this because of the impossible time I'm having trying to determine which of these two tracks is "the hit". One song can be played at max volume while you curse the name of significant others past and present. The other will feed your abhorrence for just about everyone else. Arguments over which track is superior could very well lead to drunken fist fights and ruined friendships. Do we really want that? So let's just call it a tie and agree that a double dose of hate is exactly what this world needs. Pre-order here!


Friday, October 5, 2018

Vista Blue - The Kids Still Don't Like It/...And You Have a Pizza

How long has it been since I reviewed a release by Vista Blue? Well, my last Vista Blue post referenced Villanova reaching the Elite Eight in March Madness! It was just a week later when Vista Blue released a full album called End of the Season to commemorate baseball's Opening Day. The fact that the band went to the trouble to create a detailed story based on a real life box score impressed me beyond belief. I wanted to take my time and write a fully thought-out review to do the album justice. Well I took my time, alright: an entire Major League Baseball season has passed and still no review! I suppose I whiffed on that one. So since I last wrote about Vista Blue, Villanova won the national championship, the Phillies mounted an improbable run at playoff contention, and the Phillies suffered a second-half collapse of nearly historic proportions. The band's capacity to produce quality material clearly exceeds my capacity to keep up with all of it! No worries, though. There's always something new from VB to talk about. Today you get a two-fer of Vista Blue reviews since the band has a pair of recent EPs out.

The Kids Still Don't Like It is based on one of the coolest concepts I've ever heard. The idea is to present "kid friendly" songs that adults can also enjoy. Mike references the likes of They Might Be Giants and Ralph's World as inspirations. What I appreciate is that this essentially sounds like any Vista Blue record. If you're a fan, this release is everything you've come to expect from the band. The blueprint is upbeat, sing-along poppy punk. Yet for sure, the subject matter will fully appeal to young children. My eight-year-old self would absolutely have dug songs about really tough school teachers and taking family vacations to outer space! "Four Seasons" is educational and totally fun at the same time - like Sesame Street gone pop-punk. "My Dad Listens To The Ramones" made me chuckle since the Ramones really ARE the dad rock of our indie/punk world. A really cool touch was Mike enlisting his kids to help with the lyrics for "Five Nights". It doesn't get any more authentic than that!

  ...And You Have a Pizza is the Vista Blue release that pop-punk purists have been waiting for. In a way, it's a response to the perception some people have of Vista Blue being a "baseball band". I've never really thought of the band that way. Sure, they've done baseball records. But they've also done records about curling, Christmas, the summer Olympics, Halloween, basketball, and the fall. I like that this band can write songs about literally anything (and I don't just say this in hopes they someday do a recorded tribute to Coach O eating gumbo on the recruiting trail). So with this release, the band has gone back to the basics of pop-punk/oldies-core with five songs about adolescent love. You'll hear a heavy Beach Boys influence and an actual Beach Boys song ("It's OK", the highest-charting BB single of the 1970s) too boot. "We're Back Together" is a totally sweet ode to innocent teen romance, while the likes of "I Just Spilled My Drink On The Prom Queen" and "Vaping In the Gender-Neutral Bathroom" show off the band's signature sense of humor. And if your favorite (soda) drinking game is spotting pop culture references in Vista Blue releases, be aware that that last track is a spoiler!

Vista Blue a baseball band? Nah! I prefer to think of them as one of our finest pop-punk bands who happen to be enthusiasts of baseball. So if I didn't already scare you away with nearly an entire first paragraph referencing baseball, I offer my highest recommendation to this stellar pair of EPs. Geaux Tigers!


Thursday, October 4, 2018

Vanilla Poppers - I Like Your Band

Should Vanilla Poppers be considered Aussie punk or Cleveland punk? Perhaps they are both - which would explain the innate awesomeness of this four piece hardcore punk outfit! Melbourne transplant Christina Pap is a first class screamer on lead vocals, and every word that comes out of her mouth is one you fully believe. Meanwhile, Jo Coone has captured the ideal guitar tone for aggressive punk music. It's raw and dirty, but man it sure hits hard! Out now on the ever-dependable Drunken Sailor Records, new EP I Like Your Band follows an LP from last year, an EP from 2016, and a demo from 2015. There's no messing around on these four tracks: just straight-up ferocious punk rock that hits you right in the mouth. Early '80s hardcore is a clear frame of reference, and the band wears its Midwestern grit like a badge of honor. If you're seeking honesty, conviction, and full-on raging intensity in your punk music, look no further. Crackling stuff!


Friday, September 28, 2018

Tommy and the Commies - Here Come Tommy and the Commies

I've been known to flip my shit over a Canadian band or two in my day. That was certainly the case this past February when I first heard Tommy and the Commies. I literally jumped for joy and ended up sustaining injuries from which I have only recently recovered. What is it about Canada and powerpop/punk? Are there expressways up there that allow you to travel directly to 1979? Tommy sounds like a lad who has religiously listened to the Buzzcocks, Undertones, and Dickies and thought, "Hey! This kind of music always needs to exist!" He smartly enlisted Jeff and Mitch Houle from the mighty Statues to back him in his endeavor. And just like that Tommy and the Commies came storming out of Sudbury, Ontario on a mission to fill the world with punk and pop. Slovenly Recordings, known to scan the globe for premium punk rock talent, quickly inked the band to a multi-dollar deal and lined up a debut album release for this very day. I fully expect to encounter people dancing in the streets in my travels today.

At a lean eight tracks with no song reaching two-and-a-half minutes, Here Come Tommy and the Commies is an album designed for multiple spins in a single sitting. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, and why would you want it to?! All of these songs are catchy as hell and come on with punchy guitars and boundless youthful energy. Technically speaking, it's just a damn fun record! I envision Tommy in the studio, imploring the Houle brothers that not a note will be played until everyone has consumed three cups of coffee. And there's an enthusiasm level to these performances that you just don't hear everyday. They're not just playing fast. They're playing with a palpable love for this style of music. Within the first ten seconds of "Devices", you pretty much know what you're in for. You're gonna be bobbing your head, tapping your feet, and singing along in your best Howard Devoto voice for the next 16 minutes of your life. Then you're gonna play it again! If that doesn't sound like a swell time, why are you reading my blog?


Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Amyl and The Sniffers - "Some Mutts (Can't Be Muzzled)"

What can be said about Amyl and The Sniffers besides the obvious? They're the best thing to happen to punk rock in years! The arrival of new music from this band is always an event worth celebrating internationally. It seems weird to say this, but "Some Mutts (Can't Be Muzzled)" is the debut single from Amyl and The Sniffers. And boy, is that title track ever a ripper! You might see that NWOBHM inspired cover art and wonder if that's an influence. I would say that's a definite yes! If you enjoy old style punk with a side of tough as hell rock n' roll, this is about as good as it gets! Here Amy rails against an ex who has "replaced" her. Let's just say that she's not taking it lightly! It's remarkable how far the band has come from its first EP in terms of chops and recording quality. Yet none of the edge has been lost. On the B-side is "Cup Of Destiny", a track the band released as a music video earlier this year. I absolutely love this song! It's one of the best Amyl and The Sniffers tracks to date, and I'm stoked that it's now available for purchase. I like that the band has printed the lyrics. That's some pretty deep stuff!

 "Some Mutts (Can't Be Muzzled)" b/w "Cup Of Destiny" is an instant classic punk 45. It's limited to 1,000 copies, and you know they're gonna be gone in a flash. Order now from Flightless Records in Australia and ATO Records in the USA!


Friday, September 21, 2018

Night Birds - Roll Credits

Can you believe it's already been three years since Night Birds last released new music? A lot of punk bands' entire careers don't last three years! On that very topic, this year Night Birds mark ten years as a band. It kind of blows my mind that when I first reviewed Night Birds in 2011, they were a relatively new band just getting ready to release their first album. And here they are today, ten-year-veterans of the punk scene and in my book still the best punk band going. Out today on Fat Wreck Chords, Roll Credits is Night Birds' 4th album. Or is it? This is a release inspired by some of the classic 12-inches from the heyday of hardcore (the band mentions Negative Approach's Tied Down and Minor Threat's Out Of Step in particular). Running just a little over 17 minutes, Roll Credits is shorter than Husker Du's Metal Circus but considerably longer than Circle Jerks' Group Sex. So is it an album or an EP? The math is not helping me! Let's just call it a mini-album and be done with it!

So what do the mature, ten-year-old Night Birds sound like? Thankfully, they sound very much like Night Birds! I suppose we'll have to wait until at least the next record for Night Birds to go crossover thrash or post-hardcore. Roll Credits is a little bit of everything that the band does well. Bookend tracks "Pull The String" and "Roll Credits" are first-rate surf instrumentals (discerning ears will recognize the returning presence of Mike Hunchback on guitar!). "The Day I Beat My Brain" can best be described as "vintage" Night Birds, while "White Noise Machine" recalls the breakneck hardcore of the band's most recent album Mutiny at Muscle Beach. Given my personal tastes, I'm quite partial to the dark humor of "My Dad Is The BTK" and the punk/powerpop leanings of "Radium Girls". The latter, along with a terrific cover of Suicide Commandos' "I Need A Torch", demonstrate an emerging pop sensibility in the band's sound that might surprise people. But don't for a minute believe that the band has lost its edge. "Onward To Obscurity", the album's first non-instrumental track, is pure power and fury for all of its 127 seconds. Jerry A from Poison Idea sings backups on this one, and no doubt he hears in the music of Night Birds something near and dear to his heart. I love the lyrics to this song, which poke holes in the bubble of self-importance that so many people live under. And on the subject of great lyrics, "White Noise Machine" is perhaps the most insightful and dead-on response I've seen from any band to the political machinations that have normalized bigotry in modern America.

Whether you call it a mini-album or a 12" EP, Roll Credits is an inspired return for Night Birds. I like that it leaves me wanting more! These guys took some time away, and now they've come roaring back with energy and focus. This release gives me a little of everything I like about Night Birds, plus a little more I was not expecting. I always take record label one-sheets with a grain of salt, but I 100% agree with the line about Night Birds being at the absolute peak of their powers. There is much great music yet to come from this band. But if Roll Credits is indeed Night Birds' Damaged, let's hope that doesn't mean we have to wait three years for the next record!


Monday, September 17, 2018

Phone Jerks - self titled

WHAT?! Phone Jerks have released an album? On Alien Snatch Records?! One of my favorite bands put out a record on one of my all-time favorite labels, and nobody knew anything about it until a week ago?! Now that was a fiercely-guarded secret! Respect!

Alien Snatch Records has been setting the standard for what a punk rock label ought to be for 20 years now. From assembling a roster including the likes of the Kidnappers, Real Losers, Fevers, Yum Yums, Minds, and Leg Hounds in its early 2000s heyday to releasing brilliant music by current-day bands such as Freak Genes and The #1s, Alien Snatch has remained a go-to for any fan of garage-punk and power pop. Moncton, New Brunswick's mighty Phone Jerks could not be a more fitting addition to the Alien Snatch family. Their debut LP hearkens back to countless beloved garage-punk LPs of the '90s and early 2000s. And I gotta tell you the thing is absolutely KILLER! Upon hearing "Nothing There", you just might find yourself convinced that The Rip Offs have gotten back together! Alien Snatch honcho Daniel has astutely pointed out that he could have released this album in any year of the label's history. These tunes are that timeless. Of course Phone Jerks sound like a band that could have been peers with Loli and the Chones, The Metros, Teengenerate, etc. Yet they also align perfectly with modern-day greats like Gino & The Goons and Sick Thoughts. This, my friends, is garage-punk the way it ought to be: trashy, lo-fi, and intentionally devoid of originality. Why are there not more bands like this in 2018?!

Being four upstanding Canadians who value your hard-earned dollar, Phone Jerks have delivered almost entirely brand-new material for this debut album (along with covers of "Revolution" by Australia's X and "Violence, Anarchy, Baby, Mother, Daddy-O, Dig" by Newfoundland punk legends Da Slyme). No tracks from the Goodbye Boozy 7" have been repeated, and only two songs re-appear from the band's demo tape. The instant you dig into "Bitchiker", you will find yourself fondly recalling a time when every new Rip Off Records release was an event worth celebrating. And come on: how can an album that begins with a song about killing someone not be the best record of the year?! These songs are all so ripping and catchy and tremendously fun to listen to. This is an album that you just have to crank super loud. And half the fun of this record is going through it track by track and asking, "Who are they ripping off here?"! The fact that Phone Jerks have three different lead singers makes it all that much cooler. Emily, Tyler, and Brian each bring something unique to the table (and you know, they all seem intent on smashing that table). The production (kudos Dave Belliveau and James O'Toole!) is spot-on for what budget rock ought to be. You know how modern-day reviewers are so fond of using "crackling" as an adjective? This album is crackling. Literally. 

So why aren't there more bands like Phone Jerks in 2018? I don't know, but maybe there will be after their debut album makes the rounds! Canada is ahead of the curve as always (especially in Moncton, where they observe the Atlantic Time Zone). With me poised to name an Alien Snatch release album of the year, it sure feels like old times!


Friday, September 14, 2018

Swingin' Utters - Peace and Love

The calendar tells me that Swingin' Utters have been a band for thirty years and have been releasing albums for a quarter-century. Considering all of that, it's nice knowing that these guys are still at it. At 47, I can fondly recall buying Streets of San Francisco new as a young whippersnapper of 24. It's like Swingin' Utters have grown up with me. But far from merely existing in middle age, the Utters are positively thriving. The band's new album Peace and Love was released by Fat Wreck Chords two weeks ago. I can genuinely say it's one of the best punk albums I've heard in 2018, and I might even rank it in the top five of all Swingin' Utters LPs. With this album, Johnny, Darius, and Jack have practically written the book on how a veteran punk group can mature and still sound, uh...punk! Inspired by the current state of political affairs and energized by a formidable new rhythm section (Tony Teixeira and Luke Ray from Cobra Skulls & Sciatic Nerve), the band sounds full of fire on this 15-song release. This is really the first time the Utters have addressed political issues in their music, and the urgency fueling songs such as "Human Potential" and "Deranged" is palpable. Lead track "Undertaker, Undertake" sounds like it could have come off of 1998's Five Lessons Learned. Similarly, "Drinkist" brings that classic Utters sound which has been often imitated and never duplicated. But truthfully, what makes this album shine is the way so many of these songs incorporate new or unexpected influences. "Sirens" is the Utters at their most "pop", with a distinctly modern feel. On the other hand, "Dubstep" and "Yes, I Hope He Dies" are the band's punkest, most fiery tracks in decades. The instant anthem "Demons of Springtime" demonstrates the mastery level of melody and song-crafting that the Utters have achieved over the years.

Even in their early days, Swingin' Utters were far more than the '77 punk/"street punk" revivalists that reviewers pegged them to be. Their musical and lyrical depths were generally under-recognized, and people going back to those old records may be surprised by how well they hold up. If you've passed on recent Utters releases because you assumed they would suck, now might be a good time to check in on one of our greatest American punk groups. I've never really bought into the cliche that recent political events are going to inspire some great new wave of political punk bands. But in the case of Swingin' Utters, it's hard to deny that a newfound political purpose has sparked some of their strongest music in years. Peace and Love indeed!