Thursday, April 25, 2013

Buzzcocks or The Undertones?

Every time I do one of these band battles, I think it's going to be a close contest. And somehow it usually ends up a blowout. Here's one, finally, that should be about 50/50. Or maybe I'm way off and it will be a total rout. You never know.

So as stated above, I think this one's really tough. Outside of The Ramones, these are probably the two premiere "classic" pop/punk bands. You can certainly make arguments in favor of either contestant. If we're just talking about each band's classic period, the Buzzcocks probably made a larger number of quality albums. But if I had to name the single best album made by either band, I'd go with Undertones self-titled. If you put both bands' singles head to head, I'd have a hard time declaring a winner. "Teenage Kicks" or "Orgasm Addict"? "Get Over You" or "What Do I Get?"? "Here Comes The Summer" or "Ever Fallen In Love?"? "My Perfect Cousin" or "Promises"? At least for me, some of those are just too close to call. A possible advantage for The Undertones in my opinion is that they had a lot of songs that weren't released as singles that could have been great singles. I don't know if the Buzzcocks had many deep cuts or B-sides to rival the likes of "Male Model", "Girls Don't Like It", "Mars Bars", or "There Goes Norman". If I lined up the best 20 Undertones songs against the best 20 Buzzcocks songs, I'm thinking The Undertones would prevail. But if we compared each band's best 30 or 40 songs, I'd lean the other way.

Ultimately, though, it really comes down to a gut feeling. Yeah, we know they're both great. But if you have to pick one, which way are you going? Traditionally I tend to abstain from voting on these things unless I have to break a tie. But in this case, I'm going to cast the first vote. Buzzcocks were probably more influential, and certainly have a more impressive body of work over the long haul. But I've never been one to equate longevity with greatness. At their very best, The Undertones achieved a level of perfection within their genre that will never be topped. From start to finish, that first album defines what poppy punk rock should sound like. And as great as those classic Buzzcocks albums were, sometimes a few of the tracks got a little too "arty" for my tastes. I'm a pure pop guy. I vote Undertones.

Next vote is yours!


Monday, April 22, 2013


It's been close to two years since we last heard from The Cheap Cassettes. You may remember Chaz and Kevin from the late, great Dimestore Haloes - and the two continue to collaborate in spite of the 5,000 or so miles separating Chicago and Hawaii. This sort of long-distance musical relationship is not easy to maintain. Band feuds have to be conducted via Skype. Hotel rooms have to be trashed individually. Both men fly futuristic space craft to a secret practice pad in the sky (and somehow, upon his disembarking at the space port, Chaz's hair always remains perfect). It's been a slow go as The Cheap Cassettes build their album one track at a time, but now they're up to five songs. That's half way to a full LP - with two more songs coming soon! And when you're forced to take your time like this, you can pretty much guarantee that only the A-grade material is going to make the cut. The brand new track "Wreckless" is no exception. If you assumed an immediate Naked Raygun influence given Chaz's recent relocation to Chicago, Material Issue would be a far better guess. 

"Wreckless" is up there with the best handful of songs Chaz Matthews has ever written. And that's saying something! In the words of the artist, it's more of the "tear jerkin' power pop/rock'n'roll goodness" we've come to expect from this cat. With a pre-chorus evoking The Replacements ("Parents and friends they died on us/We kept going somehow") and a chorus that brings to mind Candy ("Here we are, all the wreckless/Ain't nobody gonna break us"), the whole thing comes off like later Dimestore Haloes spending the night with Big Star and The Scruffs. Stylistically, it's perfectly executed hard pop. But at its essence, this is really soul music. In that respect, I'd put Chaz in the same category of songwriters as Greg Cartwright, "King" Louie Bankston, and "Gentleman" Jesse Smith. And you certainly can't overlook the contributions of Kevin Mess, who's a one-man rhythm section and a true connoisseur of obscure power pop. Obviously I've been a huge Chaz fan for 16 years plus, but there's something about him and Kevin together that really clicks (a la Paul Westerberg/Tommy Stinson). Circumstances might prevent them from being prolific right now, but everything they've churned out has been total gold. And I will always take quality over quantity. Plus there's something really cool about the new material being released one song at a time. It really makes you appreciate each track as a singular piece of work. Check out the whole album if you haven't yet. It's pretty fantastic. And if you're already a fan, it goes without saying that "Wreckless" is a must-hear. The Cheap Cassettes look to have album of the year 2016 in the bag! 


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Livids attack!

At the end of 2012, I proclaimed Livids the best new band of the year. I based this completely on two songs. Perhaps I should have waited to hear more. Because after taking in the band's recent mad flurry of singles, I'm convinced that I totally underrated Livids! What was I thinking? I should have proclaimed them the best new band of the decade!

To recap: Livids are Eric Davidson (New Bomb Turks) on vocals, Jami Wolf (Shop Fronts, Zodiac Killers) on guitar, Daniel Kelley (Dead Ringers, Complaints, Paper Bags, and Re-volts) on guitar, Greg Collins (Radio 4) on drums, and Joi Lacour on bass. Whether you consider them a supergroup or just a super group, they're pretty much the hottest thing going. In just the past few weeks, they've unleashed four seven-inch records upon the unsuspecting populace. The latest is out on Slovenly Recordings, and if you don't like it you might as well just give up on punk rock forever. Title cut "Your House or the Courthouse" is a scorching blast of punk rock n' roll adrenaline that has me feeling like it's 1993 (or 1977!) all over again. If you were hoping for something almost as good as the New Bomb Turks, I'd say Livids have already exceeded your expectations by a long shot. This is not some worn-out oldtimer halfheartedly reviving bygone glories. It's one of the great punk howlers ever bringing it with a ferocity that ought to be the envy of any young up-and-comer - backed by a band as fierce and formidable as he's ever had the privilege to work with. The hyper-speed blitz of "Zilch" approaches a hardcore velocity but never relinquishes its rockin' swagger. And "New Race" is an Iggy Pop cover powered out like The Stooges might have done it. This being just one of several brand new offerings from Livids, I encourage you to head over to their Bandcamp page and stream all that glorious noise for free. And then get after that vinyl - this shit's going fast!


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Sugar Stems gem!

As I recently revealed, Milwaukee's Sugar Stems are my #2 favorite current band. So you can imagine that I was pretty excited about their new album finally getting an American release! It was a festive day indeed. I put on a tie and procured an extra bottle of iced tea. I invited over several friends and even a couple strangers. I may or may not have required the afternoon off. Issued at the end of December by Screaming Apple Records (Germany) and Dream On Records (Japan), Can't Wait came out last week on Dirtnap. And for the first time in my reviewing life, it's okay for me to lift copy off the press release. Yeah: I wrote that nonsense!

If you looked up "pop" in the dictionary, I'm pretty sure you'd be referred directly to the Sugar Stems. Formed in 2007, this band has been delighting power pop fans for several years with its shamelessly sweet melodies and upbeat, impossibly catchy songs. With ties to both classic power pop and the phenomenal early 2000s Wisconsin punk scene, the Sugar Stems bring plenty of power to go with their dizzying sugar rush of pop. Those of us who'd been long awaiting an heir apparent to The Shivvers and Nikki and the Corvettes literally jumped for joy when we heard the band's 2010 debut album Sweet Songs, spending the subsequent months dancing in the streets and angrily rebuking local radio stations for failing to play "I Gotta Know". Last year a pair of superb new singles on Certified PR Records had me waiting with bated breath for another LP. Appropriately titled Can't Wait, said album is by no means a rehash of the wonderful Sweet Songs. It's more "grown-up", but only in an entirely good way.

Without abandoning their signature honeyed melodies and high-spirited candy pop style, Betsy and the gang have made a more mature and consistent album that's definitely their best release to date. The production has been stepped up another notch, and every song sounds like a hit. If you missed the singles "Greatest Pretender" and "Like I Do", they're here in all their infectious glory. And the ebullient title track is 100 percent classic Sugar Stems. But it's the more serious/melancholy songs that really showcase Betsy Heibler's development into one of the finest songwriters working today. In particular, songs like "Landline Static" and the stunning "Love You To Pieces" are steeped in the timeless traditions of Brill Building and '60s girl group pop, yet feel genuinely fresh in the year 2013. They both offer absolutely gorgeous melodies, and they plumb lyrical and emotional depths that were merely hinted at on Sweet Songs. After years of penning simple but perfect pop songs, Betsy has written her masterpiece in "Love You To Pieces". And while there are songs on this album capable of moving you to tears or at least serious personal reflection, the record is anything but a downer. There's something about the Sugar Stems' music that just makes you feel good. Sweet Songs was pretty much a modern classic of power pop, and Can't Wait is an even better album. Give it a listen for free, and surely you'll want to buy it like I did!


Friday, April 12, 2013

Meet The Little Richards!

Pop-punk as a musical genre tends to be hit-or-miss. When it's not good, it sucks something awful. But when it is good, it's pretty much the best music ever. The Little Richards, out of the Massachusetts North Shore, seem to fall in the latter category. They do pop-punk right, owing a stylistic debt to The Ramones that they make no attempt whatsoever to hide. Their latest demo is up on their Bandcamp page, and it's freaking awesome! Having specialized in writing about this type of music for much of my "career", I'm always pumped to hear a band that reminds me why I got into pop-punk in the first place. The Little Richards make me feel like I'm 25 again! They are not doing anything remotely original. But that's the whole point! They realize that with this kind of music, the goal isn't to break new ground. The goal is to make the listener not care that you're not breaking new ground! These songs are just so fun and catchy, and the minimalist production really suits the rougher edge this band brings to the pop-punk style. And you have to give them bonus points for the band name! If you can't get enough of the Ramones/Queers/Riverdales thing, here's your next favorite band. 


Thursday, April 11, 2013

My ten favorite current...

1. Something Fierce
2. Sugar Stems
3. Missing Monuments
4. Midnite Snaxxx
5. Night Birds
6. The Cry!
7. The Keefs
8. Cold Warps 
9. Youthbitch
10. The Dahlmanns

1. Pastrami on rye
2. Philly cheesesteak with Whiz and onions
3. Cleveland Polish boy
4. Cuban sandwich
5. Classic Italian hoagie (with salami & cappicola)
6. Meatball sub
7. Chicago roast beef sandwich
8. Roast pork sandwich
9. Reuben (with kraut, not slaw)
10. Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich

1. Victory Baltic Thunder
2. Founders Dirty Bastard
3. Bell's Porter
4. Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel
5. DuClaw Old Flame
6. Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA
7. Lagunitas Pils
8. Green Bay Brewing/Hinterland Maple Bock
9. Tröegs Troegenator
10. Founders Breakfast Stout

1. Wayne Simmonds
2. Brent Celek
3. Carlos Ruiz
4. Zac Rinaldo
5. Ryan Howard
6. Brayden Schenn
7. DaMeco Ryans
8. Thaddeus Young
9. Kimmo Timonen
10. Jason Peters

Reality TV Programs:
1. Duck Dynasty
2. Bizarre Foods America
3. Deadliest Catch
4. United States of Bacon
5. Storage Wars 
6. Ghost Adventures
7. Finding Bigfoot
8. Hell's Kitchen
9. Property Wars
10. River Monsters

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

It's The Shirks!

Score another one for Greg Mongroll! He recently turned me on to Thee Mighty Fevers, and now he's got me hooked on the new 12" from Washington, D.C.' s The Shirks. It's actually their fifth release, and I've got to say I feel like a real dolt for being unaware of this band's existence until a couple weeks ago. And to make matters worse, I didn't know that the group's singer/guitarist is Alec Budd of the legendary Problematics! Double demerit! Have I been living in a cave or something? Well, yeah, kinda.

The Shirks' label (the esteemed Grave Mistake Records) offers up the description of "trashy, fuzzed out punk rock n' roll". Oh man. Doesn't that just sound like something I'd be into?! "Trashy" rock n' roll is like "malty" beer and "curvy" women: pretty much guaranteed to be great. And, indeed, the record straight-up smokes! If you combined the early Saints with the top bands from the heyday of Rip Off Records and pushed the tempos to the brink of hardcore, it would sound something like this. Songs like "Bad Area", "I Don't Want To Work It" and "9:30 Dicks" gloriously blur the lines between raw, primitive garage-punk and '77 punk rock n' roll. And 99 percent of the "lo-fi" bands out there would kill for that filthy guitar tone! You get eight songs spinning at 45 RPM, and they're all rippers! Definitely a must-hear. The check's in the mail, Greg!


Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Youthbitch strikes again!

One of last year's nicest surprises was Youthbitch's extraordinary sophomore LP. It made me an instant fan and ultimately cracked my year-end top ten. Given the band's punky powerpop style and Portland home base, I think a lot of people must have been wondering, "How in the hell is this band not on Dirtnap Records?!" Well, guess what? Now Youthbitch is on Dirtnap! A co-release with Jonnycat Records, new 7" "I'm In Love With Girls" is a textbook specimen of the Dirtnap brand. The moderately paced title cut is pleasingly reminiscent of the Exploding Hearts yet still displays the qualities that make this band unique. These Midwestern transplants bring a puerile silliness to their craft that I hope they never outgrow. And even though they're very talented, they still approach their music as if they just learned to play last week. You see a title like "I'm In Love With Girls" and expect a certain kind of song. And that's exactly what you'll get! The lead guitar parts are so catchy - I guarantee that they'll be stuck in your head for days! I just caught myself whistling the melody while standing over a urinal. I think the band would be proud.

While Youthbitch still refuse to take themselves seriously, this record does show some real growth in the songwriting department. There are no "joke" songs this time, and two of the three tracks run longer than three minutes. These lads may come off like a bunch of degenerate goofs, but their pop sensibility is surprisingly refined. Closing track "Everyone's Mellow But Me" is indicative of how far they've come. It's an ironic title since the song is kind of, uh, mellow. Again, the guitar hooks are pretty damn stupendous. Think Buzzcocks meet Mean Jeans, or something like that.

I was expecting big things from this single in the wake of the awesomeness that was Don't Fuck This Up. And Youthbitch was not about to let me down. These guys have entered my top ten list of current bands - and they're rising fast!


Friday, April 05, 2013

The F & L Hall of Fame: Tina Lucchesi

Tina Lucchesi is the first individual performer to be featured in my hall of fame series. All four previous inductees have been bands. Clearly Tina was destined for this honor. She may be the coolest rock n' roller of my generation. As a drummer, singer, songwriter, and record label owner, she's had a vital role in a great many of my favorite records of the past two decades. She covered Holly and the Italians not once but twice - and lived to tell the tale. If I could erect a Mount Rushmore of modern day garage/powerpop/rock n' roll, she'd be up there with Travis Ramin and Louie Bankston.

Rather than attempt to list every band she's ever been in (an impossible task!) or expound on her abundant talents (been there, done that), I will instead list my top ten Tina band releases. These titles span all my years in the zine/blog game, from the mid-'90s through the 2000s to present day. I raved about most of these when they came out and love them just as much now. It should also be noted that on her label Lipstick Records, Tina released classic singles by such artists as The Fevers, Riff Randells, Candygirl, and Bitchschool. I often talk about what a golden period the late '90s and early 2000s were for punk rock, and truly it would not have been the same without Tina Lucchesi. And she's still going strong today!

Here we go!

10. Cyclops - "Eye Can't Take It" 7" (2012)
Tina + Jonnycat = Cyclops, a triumphant return to Tina's trashy garage roots. King Louie guests on guitar!

9. Top Ten- "Easily Unkind" 7" (2006)
Top Ten was probably Tina's most overlooked band. But as a huge fan of rockin' '70s punk, I was on board from the jump. This was their second single, with an excellent lead track penned by bad-ass guitarist Erin McDermott. Teenage Head and DMZ covers on the flip tell you exactly where this band was coming from.

8. Bobbyteens- Fast Livin' & Rock N Roll LP (1998)
Classic full-length debut from one of my favorite bands of the glorious '90s/2000s. Gonna get down!

7. Deadly Weapons- "You're So Selfish" 7" (2003)
Everyone thinks of Tina as the power pop/garage queen, but with Deadly Weapons she indulged her love for fast and furious angry punk. This was the band's second offering of nasty bad attitude punk fucking rock. And a cover of G.G.'s "Don't Talk To Me" iced the cake!

6. Top Ten - "Never Get Enough" 7" (2005)
Top Ten's first and best single. Check out the clip below!

5. Midnite Snaxxx- "Like Lightning" 7" (2010)
Killer debut 45 from Tina's current band, co-starring the illustrious Dulcinea Gonzalez. Still hoping the band's LP from last year will eventually get a digital release!

4. Bobbyteens - Not So Sweet LP (2000)
This album added a big dose of power pop to the Bobbyteens' budget rock meets '60s girl group sound. I'll have to check the books, but I think this was my album of the year for 2000.

3. The Trashwomen- Spend the Night With The Trashwomen LP (1993)
We all know how legendary the '90s Bay area lo-fi garage scene was, and this was one of its most classic LPs. Tina's on drums!

2. Tina and the Total Babes - She's So Tuff LP (2001)
When I first heard that Tina was collaborating with the great Travis Ramin, I'm pretty sure I busted a nut. Conservatively, I'd put this in my top five list of all-time best power pop LPs.

1. Bobbyteens- "Firecracker" 7" (1996)
Being a perpetual list maker, I have for many years kept a running list of the ten greatest rock n' roll songs ever made. One song that's always in the top ten: "Firecracker". Right now it's at #5. Not too shabby!

Yeah, I know: that's the mere tip of the iceberg! There are five more Bobbyteens singles plus the Cruisin' for a Bruisin' LP, a couple more Midnite Snaxxx singles, another Deadly Weapons 7" and full-length, a third Top Ten EP, and an additional Cyclops single that I easily could have mentioned. If a Time Life Tina Lucchesi box set ever gets released, the infomercial will have to be two hours long. But enough talk. How about some rock?! Click play and enjoy. It's Tina time!


Tuesday, April 02, 2013

More Cold Warps goodness!

There are probably only a handful of legitimate contenders for the prestigious title of Best Band in the World. And I'm pretty sure that Cold Warps have got to be one of them. The Halifax/Ottawa foursome seems to raise the bar with every new release. The band's latest tape is its best yet - consisting of five demos for an upcoming LP. It's pretty much the same old Cold Warps, but different. Does that make any sense? While still very much in the lo-fi pop style, the group's sound has been beefed up quite a bit. It's a little louder, a little punkier. If I had had a tiny criticism of the previous recordings, it might have been that the songs could have used just a little more punch. Well, I certainly can't say that anymore! Surely the final versions of these songs will be very different. But knowing these guys, they'll somehow find a way to make them even better!

Recorded "in a parking garage and bedrooms", Tour Demos demonstrates that you don't need big budgets or state of the art studios to make well-crafted pop music with great-sounding harmonies. Cold Warps are just one of those bands that seem perfectly suited to a lo-fi recording approach. When you can write songs this good, you don't need all the bells and whistles. Of course I love the bouncy jolt of high-energy numbers like "Take Your Time" and "Mess Around". Fans of the band's distinct AM radio power pop meets surf rock meets garage-punk sound will absolutely love these tracks. What a rush! But there are some nice surprises as well. Opener "Dip Tripper" puts the power in power pop, and the acoustic track "Worry Worms" is totally weird yet completely brilliant. These guys can truly do it all: love songs, creepy songs, creepy love songs...

Seriously, man: if these are just the "demos", how great is the album going to be?!


Monday, April 01, 2013

Hooray for Radio Days!

I've been waiting a long time for the chance to write about Radio Days. By the time I started this blog, the band's most recent album was already a year old. So I figured I'd just wait for them to put out another album. And yay, here it is! Issued last month, Get Some Action is the Milan power pop foursome's third full-length release. And as expected, I absolutely love the thing! I cannot stop listening to it!

What I love about Radio Days is the perfect simplicity of their craft. Purely and completely, this is a pop band. They're not trying to be revolutionary or modern or even particularly original. I wouldn't call them "retro" as much as I'd call them throwbacks to a time when perfect pop songs ruled the airwaves (hence the name of the band!). Remarkably, Radio Days pull off this sort of guitar pop classicism without sounding like clones of the artists they revere (Rubinoos, Big Star, Elvis Costello). Perhaps it's just the Italian accent, but I don't get a "Yeah, I've heard this so many times before!" feeling from Get Some Action. Or maybe it all feels so fresh because these guys are just so very good at what they do. Dario and company just have a knack (or should I say Knack?) for crafting simple melodies that take me straight to my happy place. And even as their artistry has matured, they have not lost sight of essential basics like melody and harmonies.

Get Some Action sets a tone off the bat with the impossibly upbeat "Burning Together". This would be a great song to kick off a live show, and it's a great song to kick off an album as well. Right off, you know you're in for a good time full of infectious melodies. Songs like "Girl Girl Girl" and "I'll Be Your Man" are flawless nods to the British Invasion, and the title track is catchier than the clap on a college campus. But what makes this album truly great is the balance between the sunny feelgood numbers and the slower, prettier songs. The tremendous talent of this band really comes shining through in pristine gems like "One Thousand Miles Away" and "Goodbye My Lover". They're just so beautiful and well-crafted, yet no less "hummable" than the lighter cuts. And while it's often a throwaway when a band breaks out the acoustic guitar, superb album closer "My Dreams On the Ground" is one of the record's high points - replete with a string arrangement that genuinely fits the song.

Is it too early to start talking about album of the year frontrunners? Get Some Action is going to be hard to top in 2013. It's chock full of indelible melodies, and it brightens my day no matter what kind of mood I'm in. While hardly the first (and definitely not the last!) band to draw inspiration from the '64-'65 Beatles, Radio Days demonstrate how timeless this kind of music can be when it's carried off with such skill and enthusiasm. Most critically, this LP is not a mere "genre exercise" like a lot of power pop records tend to be. As they say, great songwriting never goes out of style.