Sunday, April 29, 2012

Welcome back, Gentleman Jesse!

What?! It’s been three months since I updated my 2012 Album of the Year shortlist? I must be losing my touch! Today I make my first public revision to the list, and in all seriousness it might be the last time I mess with the top spot. That’s how good Gentleman Jesse’s new album is. Unless you’ve been living in a cave (which I sort of do), you know the back story. America’s most beloved power pop classicist, after enduring such hardships as a brutal mugging, the death of several friends, and the general air of violence in recession-era Atlanta, went to a dark place for quite a while. He retreated to his basement, wrote a bunch of songs, and eventually emerged with the album Leaving Atlanta. Fear not: it’s by no means a “dark” album. Jesse has not really strayed from the tried-and-true Rickenbacker guitar pop formula that’s been his stock-in-trade for years. And while the labeling of this as a solo album might lead some to believe that Jesse has gone all softy singer/songwriter on us, the truth is that Leaving Atlanta out-rocks the last album by a wide margin. 

The good news is that Jesse isn’t really leaving Atlanta. Oh, he may have considered it. But nothing can keep a good man down. Brilliant leadoff track “Eat Me Alive” purges the demons that inspired this album, turning tragedy to triumph. “This city’s trying to eat me alive,” sings Jesse. “But it’s as good a place as any to try to survive. So if you keep your head down, you push on through, you just might make it to the other side.” Words to live by for sure! You hear that frantic guitar jangle, that fierce desperation in the vocals, and you realize this could have been a dark album. But our man did make it to the other side, and this inspiring tune sets a tone for a genuinely upbeat, totally poptastic album. Like last year’s great Missing Monuments LP (King Louie in fact guests on harmonica on “Eat Me Alive”), Leaving Atlanta marries the sounds of classic power pop to the punchy grit of bar band rock n’ roll. “I’m Only Lonely” comes off like The Beat jamming with The E Street Band circa 1980, while “Take It Easy On Me” and “Covered Up My Tracks” blend soulful rock n’ roll with ‘60s girl group dramatics a la The Reigning Sound. And as much as I like by-the-book perfect power pop numbers such as “I’m a Mess” (in my opinion, the best song on the album), what really elevates Leaving Atlanta is that it never quite settles down. Nervy pub-rock corkers like “You Give Me Shivers” provide kicks in the pants at just the right spots, and it’s just freakin’ cool that Jesse gets possessed by Little Richard for a minute-and-a-half of unadulterated fun on “Rooting for the Underdog”. And at the end of the day, in spite of its dark origins, Leaving Atlanta is mostly a collection of love songs. Some are optimistic (“Kind of Uptight”), and some are agonizing (“Careful What You Wish For”). But they’re all great. From top to bottom, this album is stacked. No longer a mere acolyte to the likes of Paul Collins and Nick Lowe, Gentleman Jesse has joined them in the masters class.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Say hello to Images!

If you think “L.A. power pop”, the first thing that comes to mind is probably a bunch of douchey wannabe rock stars with hipster haircuts and a 16-page press kit. But Images are nothing like that. Imagine instead a band that just stepped off a time machine from London 1978, where they opened for the Buzzcocks and The Jam (with a stop along the way to 1985 where they picked up a copy of The Descendents’ I Don’t Want To Grow Up on vinyl). Here’s the funny thing: in 2012, they actually are opening for the Buzzcocks! It’s stunning that this band has been around for YEARS and had somehow evaded my radar until now. Within the punk/power pop genre of music that I’ve been championing since the mid-’90s, this is easily one of the best groups I’ve heard in a long, long time. Formed way back in 2004, Images suffered for years through the common problem of not being able to find a permanent drummer. They fixed that issue three years ago when singer James Carman took over behind the kit. Images forged on as a power trio, and they most definitely have flourished since then! Hit ‘em up at ReverbNation, and you’ll be treated to some A-quality tuneage like the high-energy jolter “Frustration” and the wistful pop gem “I Know That It’s Alright” (shades of the Exploding Hearts!). Brand new 7-inch Thought Patterns is a split release on 45RPM and Under the Bridge Records. And with songs like “Shivers and Scars”, you’ll get to hear what pop/punk music is supposed to sound like! Having had this little taste of Images, I want more. I want a lot more! After eight years, they’ve got to have an album or two or three written by now. Someone sign these kids! They’ve paid their dues. It’s time for world domination!


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Westerberg or Weller?

It's battle time again. Call this one the Battle of the Pauls. Westerberg or Weller: who are you taking? They both have to number amongst the 10-20 greatest songwriters this world has ever known. And while both are best known for their early work, neither guy has been a slouch in old age. So we're not just talking Replacements vs. The Jam (a tough call in its own right). Look at the complete bodies of work. Which of the two is the greater talent? Whose music do you listen to more often? Who would you rather sit next to on a trans-continental flight? Perhaps a lot of people on my side of the pond will consider this one a slam dunk for Westerberg. But in England, where Weller is more appreciated (my friend Dave Getzoff once said, "He's like their Bruce Springsteen"), it might be the other way around. As I do in most cases, I will remain neutral for the time being. I may vote in the case of a tie. But the real decision is in your hands. Two Pauls, two all-time greats. But there can only be one winner. Choose wisely!


Monday, April 16, 2012


The new Mojomatics album is here! Imagine me saying that in the voice of Steve Martin in The Jerk hailing the arrival of the new phone books. I really am that stoked! I have loved this band since their legendary second album came out on Alien Snatch Records six years ago, so it was somewhat of an event to wrap my ears around a brand spanking new Mojos long player (their first since 2008). And damn skippy, I celebrated in style. I closed all the window treatments, broke out my mid-’60s vintage dancing shoes, poured myself a bottle of Peroni, and cranked the speakers to 16. And I was not disappointed. The world’s most beloved Italian Americana twosome has delivered an album worthy of the four-year wait. Mojomatt and Davmatic continue to show their love for rock n’ roll’s roots and history. They record exclusively on analog equipment, and they’ve even started their own studio label a la Chess and Sun Records. Musically, they’ve mostly shed the punky elements of their sound and have made a record that essentially ignores the past 40 years of changes in popular music. And while the influences (Stones, Dylan, Kinks, Byrds) are no big secret, The Mojomatics still sound like The Mojomatics. Again they’ve cooked up a tasty stew of hillbilly blues, country & western, bluegrass, folk, and British Invasion pop, and as always it’s their superb songwriting that sets them apart from all those crap-ass “garage blues” type groups. And from a production standpoint, this record is way beyond anything the band has done before. How did just two guys create a sound with so many layers?

Based on title alone, You Are the Reason for My Troubles sounds a little bit like a bummer of an album. And it is, but not in a bad way. I mean, come on: you can’t sing the blues if you’ve got nothing to be blue about! Hence we get songs with titles like “Rain Is Digging My Grave“, “You Don’t Give A Shit About Me” , and “Yesterday Is Dead and Gone”. Even the snappiest numbers, like “Feet In the Hole” and the superb title track, reek of heartbreak and anguish and the deep-cutting emotional damage some she-devil surely inflicted upon the composer. One man’s suffering is the rest of the world’s gain- all that love lost and general downtroddenness skillfully channeled into great songs with heart, soul, and hooks galore. Album opener “Behind The Trees” is an instant hit, radiating melancholic tunefulness a la ‘70s Stones or the mellower side of The Saints. Then the title track kicks up a little dirt on the bluesy country tip, and right off you’ve got that stellar 1-2 punch that every great album’s got to have. And while there’s nothing particularly surprising about the turns the Mojos proceed to take, this is far and away the most diverse and “mature” album they’ve ever made. That might constitute shark-jumping for a lesser band, but we are not talking about a lesser band. Give this puppy a couple of spins, and you’ll have to admit these guys are getting better. As a fan of songcraft, I’ve got lots here to sink my teeth into. “Rain Is Digging My Grave” hints at psychedelic pop with a discernibly sinister streak, while the brilliant “Ghost Story” is a piano-driven number evoking The Kinks in their ‘66-‘67 prime. And album closer “Her Song” might be the band’s greatest achievement yet- a sad & very beautiful song that Gram Parsons would have been proud to have written.

The Mojomatics continue to prove that no genre of music ever really goes out of style if it’s done right. I sometimes think it’s nifty when a band pumps new life into sounds from 30 years ago. But how about a band that does the same with sounds from 70 years ago?! Not content to just imitate, Matt and Dav are truly inspired by the great music of the past. And what they do with those old sounds is inspired in its own right! The novelty of what they were doing a few years ago now replaced by a more traditional approach to making music, The Mojomatics have grown into the brilliant band I always knew they’d become. Go get this album!


Friday, April 13, 2012

Return To The Nowhere Zone

It’s an idea that a number of bands have tried before: re-record a bunch of old songs and make a “new” album. So why does the concept so rarely work? Perhaps because in a lot of instances, the whole exercise seems pointless. And far too often, the new versions of the songs are nowhere near as good as the originals (D.I.’s Caseyology, anyone?). But in the case of The Anxieties, it all makes perfect sense. They always seemed to me like a band that had only scratched the surface of their potential. You could tell what kind of music they were trying to make, but they weren’t 100 percent there yet. In the ensuing years, they’ve really figured out how to get the sound they want in the laboratory, I mean, studio. And with all due respect to past members, their current lineup is surely their best yet. On top of that, after a few years you really get a sense of which songs are worth re-recording and which ones aren’t. It all adds up to Return to the Nowhere Zone, far and away the best thing the Anxieties have ever released. I’m telling you, man: the thing flat-out kills!

Return to the Nowhere Zone is a frenetic delight. It comes off like an apocalyptic mash-up of early ‘80s Southern Californian melodic hardcore, late ‘90s Rip Off Records trash, and a Red Bull fueled all-night sci-fi and horror movie marathon. If not quite as dark as Sharp Objects or as unhinged as the Night Birds, The Anxieties are very much in the same vein and not lacking in social commentary of their own. In fact, it’s tempting to look at these songs and view the album as some kind of dire critique of the high strangeness that is our world in the year 2012. But keep in mind that a lot of these tunes were written like five or six years ago! With fully realized production and a tighter, speedier attack, The Anxieties really break out on this release and establish themselves as one of the top punk bands out there. Songs rarely exceed the two-minute barrier, and even at its darkest this album is fast-paced and fun. Von Rocket’s spastic vocals and humorous, socially aware lyrics have always been on point. Here they resonate like never before, buoyed by a Zero Boys meets Adolescents old school blitzkrieg and a heavy dose of surf guitar. Check out “Nowhere Zone” or “Do The Suicide” or “(The) De-Evolution (Will Be Televised)”. Pretty great, eh? I can’t help but envision a circle pit full of androids and Martians tearing it up from start to finish. This is not quite the same old Anxieties. It’s more like The Anxieties on 24th Century performance enhancers secretly acquired from alien scientists (Shhhh! I shouldn’t be telling!). No doubt their next album is gonna be scary good (the demos on Bandcamp are sounding very Fuses-esque). In the meantime, Return to the Nowhere Zone ought to whet your appetite just fine. And the download’s only five bucks? That’s cheap! Clearly The Anxieties love you. You should love them back!


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dirtnap Records: The Ten Greatest Albums

In the early, print phase of my writing career, it was record labels like Pelado and Mutant Pop that ruled the roost. But by the time I went electronic in the early 2000s, a new power label had emerged. Dirtnap Records came into existence the same year the Now Wave webzine debuted, and many of its early releases were particular favorites of mine. The whole Dirtnap scene was precisely the shot in the arm punk music needed at the time. And it was exciting to be connected to it. I was all about The Briefs, then the Epoxies, then the Exploding Hearts. I’ve got great memories of reviewing the Dirtnap Across the Northwest comp. And Dirtnap did not let up from there. The label is still going strong today, and without doubt it rates as one of the great punk labels of the modern era. Making an all-time top ten list of Dirtnap LPs was really hard because I had to leave out so many awesome bands. But man oh man, what a formidable list this is! Here goes:

10. The Spits (2003)
As supreme high commander of the starship Now Wave, I always kept the choice promo for myself and sent out a lot of the “second tier” stuff to my staff writers. But sometimes I fucked up and let a real gem escape. Here’s an example of an album I wish I’d kept for myself. What a band! They’re still killing it today.

9. High Tension Wires- Send a Message (2005)
When this incredible album first came out, I totally panned it. Then I regained my sanity, listened to it some more, realized it was awesome, and retracted my negative review. I’m no politician. I can flip-flop if I want!

8. Epoxies (2002)
The only reason this isn’t ranked higher is because Dirtnap has released such a high volume of incredible music. 99 percent of labels would kill to have released just one album this great.

7. Modern Machines- Take It, Somebody (2006)
One of my favorite bands of the 2000s. This, in my opinion, is their best album. It never got the acclaim it deserved.

6. The Minds- Plastic Girls (2003)
It’s killing me that I only ranked this #6. Easily one of the best and most underrated punk albums of the entire 2000s.

5. The Ergs- Upstairs/Downstairs (2007)
It’s hard to believe that The Ergs, who were together for something like ten years and released over one thousand singles, only made two albums. And while I have a sentimental attachment to their first album, I can’t say it’s superior to their second. This was a band that was still getting better even towards the end of its time. Surely with the release of this album, Dirtnap forever shed its “regional label” rep.

4. The Marked Men - On the Outside (2004)
It’s not too soon to call this one a “classic”.

3. Something Fierce- Don't Be So Cruel (2011)
Did I put this too high since it’s fresh in my mind? Only time will tell, but I doubt it. Something Fierce has attained true greatness, and will only get better going forward.

2. The Briefs- Hit After Hit (2000)
When this came out, we talked about the cool bands The Briefs emulated. Now we talk about the cool bands that emulate The Briefs. 

1. Exploding Hearts- Guitar Romantic (2003)
While the majority of my CD collection was, uh, taken without my permission a couple years ago, this is one I still possess. Why? Because it hasn’t left my car in like eight years. One of my all-time favorite punk albums of any era.

So there you have it. Sorry to the Mind Controls, The Pulses, Steve Adamyk Band, Dirt Bike Annie, The Ends, Beat Beat Beat, Sonic Avenues, Busy Signals, and a whole lot of others. Maybe this should have been a top 20!


Monday, April 09, 2012

Cheap Thrills are the best kind!

You thought I was kidding when I told you I was just getting started documenting The Canadian Takeover. But now you know better! The invaders number a great many, and they are coming strong. You are powerless to stop this siege. So just lie back and enjoy it. Get a nice pair of headphones. Brush up on your French. Grow a playoff beard. Out of Montreal come The Cheap Thrills. They are not the first band to call themselves The Cheap Thrills. But should there ever be a decisive battle of the bands with all the other Cheap Thrills out there, the Canadian crew would win easily. It wouldn’t even be a fair fight! Featuring members of the Bators, the Fishnet Stalkers, and the Heart Attacks, The Cheap Thrills play the sort of sleazy, hook-laden style of glam-punk that hasn’t really gone out of fashion in 40 years. Their musical inspirations, like their name, are what you might call “tried and true”. That’s somehow appropriate. If the likes of the New York Dolls, the Dead Boys, Boys, Hanoi Rocks, The Joneses, and ‘70s Stones float your boat, The Cheap Thrills will, uh, thrill you. The key, of course, is that they are far more than mere genre re-hashers. They do the trashy rock n’ roll thing really well. Guitarists David Hener and Sam Gimme have a wildfire Thunders/Sylvain type thing going on, and Hener on lead vocals is more than a little reminiscent of Stiv Bators (in an entirely good way). Most importantly, these cats have tunes. Signature number “I Gotta Get Away” rides the fine line between back alley proto-punk and the anthemic side of Sunset Strip sleaze, buoyed by guitar hooks that never quit and a rollicking, catchy chorus. “21” is more of the same with a heavy injection of power pop, and at this very moment it’s lodging itself deep inside my head. Remember a few years back when bands like Plastic Letters and Soda Pop Kids were a going concern? If you remember that scene fondly, you should be all over The Cheap Thrills. If you don’t, well, that’s okay too. Remember Loose Lips? The Slash City Daggers? The Richmond Sluts? Stop me before I name every glam-punk band of the last 15 years! The Cheap Thrills rate with the best of ‘em. Debut EP out now!


Saturday, April 07, 2012

Teenage Frames are back!

Years pass. Regimes crumble. Brown hairs turn gray. And through it all, the Teenage Frames still sound like the New York Dolls molesting Cheap Trick at the roller rink. Sonically kindred spirits to the likes of the dearly departed Beat Angels and Trash Brats, the Teenage Frames are the last band standing from the glam/punk/powerpop movement I championed so fervently in my youth. When I last reported on the exploits of the Teenage Frames a few years back, they were in the midst of releasing a series of CD EPs. The concept was that - instead of putting out albums - they'd just do EPs and make them all really awesome (yep, they thought of it before The Biters did!). We loyal fans waited with bated breath for the latest in the series to arrive. There were lengthy delays due to suspected alien abductions, dental emergencies, and certain band members exploring presidential runs. But now it's finally out! And indeed, it's really awesome! The thing is front-loaded with three pop gems that you'd describe as "potential hit singles" if it were still 1978. "Armband Manifesto" is a high-spirited sing-along with a much-welcomed positive message ("We can be what we wanna be/And we can wear it on our sleeves!"), while "I Was a Member of the SLA" is snappy bubblegum punk par excellence. That 1-2 punch alone would have been worth the price of admission, but the boys may have saved their best for third. "I Don't Wanna Go Home Yet" is probably the downright poppiest Teenage Frames song I've ever heard. It's so upbeat and catchy, it sounds like it could have come right out of a montage scene in a turn-of-the-'80s teen movie. Good times!

Seriously, these are three of the best Teenage Frames songs ever! Any of them could have been A-sides on 7-inch records. Lucky you gets three singles for the price of one! It's a deal and a steal! The "filler" ain't so bad either. "Can't Get Away From You" has me wondering how a Troggs demo found its way onto my Teenage Frames CD. And "Substitute" is a more-than-adequate cover of one of the greatest songs ever. What can I say? The Teenage Frames are aging like fine wine - or perhaps pungent farmhouse cheese that would bring Andrew Zimmern to tears of joy. Their fourth EP is their best by far! Bring on the singles collection!