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!