Tuesday, November 26, 2013

L.A. Drugz drop some vinyl!

Woo-hoo! The debut 12" from L.A. Drugz has arrived, and it has totally made my year! The first time I played it, my jaw dropped so far that I required minor facial surgery. What kind of crazy times are we living in when a band can create music of this caliber and not make the cover of Rolling Stone or at least Tiger Beat? And why did my local radio D.J. rudely hang up on me last night when I called and asked him to play "Marina"? Shouldn't a man of his occupation be keeping up with all the hot new tunes? I raved about a few of these tracks earlier this year, and I consequently built up expectations for the band's debut EP that were going to be very hard to meet. But this is L.A. Drugz, man! They didn't just meet my expectations - they exceeded them! I will not reveal my selection for album of the year for a few more weeks. But I'll gladly tell you that Outside Place is my favorite overall release of 2013.

L.A. Drugz is the latest band from Justin Maurer of Clorox Girls fame. With James Carman from Maniac and Images, Cezar Mora from Bad Machine, and Johnny "JD" Reyes (ex Images and Bad Machine) joining him in the lineup, this is somewhat of a punk/powerpop super group. And the word "super" is right! I would not be surprised to hear that these dudes wear capes (because, you know, they're quite fashionable). I did not review the Clorox Girls as many times as I should have when I was doing Now Wave Magazine. It's one of my greatest regrets in life, right up there with voting for Ralph Nader and declining a date with Susie Kitzenbaumer because she wanted to go see Forrest Gump. My penance will include a 5,000 word retro review of J'aime Les Filles and continuing coverage of Maurer's current musical projects. L.A. Drugz in particular hit my sweet spot with their right-on blend of classic power pop and melodic '70s style punk. There are some obvious similarities to the Clorox Girls, but with considerably more '60s pop influence in the songwriting and vocal harmonizing. The title track is a knockout punch of Ramones/Buzzcocks/Dickies goodness that has me bouncing off the walls. If I had heard it when I was 26, I would have gone out that very day and gotten an L.A. Drugz tattoo! The hauntingly infectious "Vampire" could pass for a lost Clorox Girls track, while "All The Time" is as close as you can get to mid-'70s California without a time machine and a new hairdo. "Ooh Ooh Ooh", which sounds like a missing track off the Rhino Shake It Up! compilation, would probably be the "hit" if it weren't up against the sheer pop perfection of "Marina". Maurer is the primary songwriter here, while Mora is responsible for all those catchy guitar leads. And Carman, the Clem Burke of his generation, is the band's secret weapon. He excels on backing vocals, and his drumming style is perfect for this kind of music. I don't think it's a coincidence that every band he plays in is awesome!

In my previous write-up on L.A. Drugz, I predicted that they'd be my favorite band by year's end. I can't say I was wrong about that! This group is the perfect combination of all the things I love in music. They are modern day heirs to L.A. power pop greats like The Knack and The Nerves, yet they also mix in that classic punk style that I can never get enough of. Whether you're talking about a hook worthy of a K-tel commercial ("Ooh Ooh Ooh") or a melody destined to be stuck in your head all day ("Marina"), Maurer knows what it takes to craft a great pop song. In addition, he and his band mates really nail crucial touches such as the harmonies and guitar solos. And let's not overlook the simple fact that this record sounds great. It was produced by the band at the home studio of "Kid" Kevin Carle (ex Clorox Girls) and mastered by Red Dons' bassist Hadji Husayn at North London Bomb Factory. The result is a warm analog sound with plenty of punch - the kind of recording that always sounds amazing on vinyl! And while it's perfectly natural to speculate on what kind of album L.A. Drugz might be capable of making, there's something about the extended play format that really seems suited to power pop. With only six songs on the record, you're getting less quantity but way more quality. No doubt about it, every track could have been an A-side. All killer, no filler: if that's not the American way, it sure should be!



Friday, November 22, 2013

Retro Reviews: The Many Moods Of The Vindictives

"As you wait for your lobotomy in line/
 The cranky little clones wet at once and cry/
 But mommy says it's always better to obey/
 And the tiny lights burn out more and more every day"

I often talk about the '90s being the second golden age of punk rock. If I ever got around to doing it, I could fill multiple volumes of books with write-ups on all the great punk bands of the '90s. It was a wonderful time to be a young writer coming up in the punk world. And all these years later, those bands and their music still hold up incredibly well. A few of the great bands of that time received the acclaim they justly deserved. Others toiled in obscurity and were totally overlooked. In between were the bands who got some recognition, but should have been way bigger. I'd put The Vindictives in that latter category. Signing to Lookout! Records at the height of the label's popularity, the Chicago band didn't exactly go unnoticed. But I've always maintained that most people failed to grasp just how incredible The Vindictives were in their prime. They were, to my mind, criminally underrated. They shoulda been huge. If I had to make a list of the ten greatest punk bands of the '90s, that would be really, really hard. But for sure, The Vindictives would have to be on that list.

If you weren't particularly paying attention, you might have dismissed The Vindictives as a typical '90s pop-punk band. But while they were definitely in the top tier of bands to be associated with that whole scene, there was nothing even remotely "typical" about The Vindictives. Sure, they had the melodic sensibility and unassailable Ramones influence of their well-known peers. But they were an incredibly unique band - creating manic and neurotic punk music full of fiercely intelligent ruminations on alienation, madness, and the general hollowness of respectable society. While the band's contemporaries mostly waxed pathetic on love and infatuation, The Vindictives tackled far more troubling subject matter with smarts and humor. With his deranged, snot-nosed vocals, Joey Vindictive would have been a distinctive artist even if he hadn't written such brilliant & bizarre lyrics. I'd put him up there with the greatest punk rock singers.

I can still remember where I was the first time I heard The Vindictives: sitting in my bedroom by the turntable, delighted and completely stunned by what I'd just heard. I thought to myself, "Holy shit, that guy's nuts...and I love it!" Rocks In My Head, the band's first EP for Lookout!, was one of a handful of recordings that propelled me into a "career" of writing about punk music. I yearned for much more, and Lookout! came through in 1995 with The Many Moods Of The Vindictives, a deluxe 28-song collection of the band's recorded output circa 1991-93 (their first six EPs plus a few comp cuts). While the band did release several more EPs in between 1994 and 1996, I always reach for The Many Moods Of... when I want to hear "vintage" Vindictives. Rather than make the mistake of trying to re-record their classic 7" tracks for a "proper" studio album, the band simply remixed and re-released all the original recordings. The result was one of the best punk albums of its time. Compared to a lot of stuff that I raved about back then, it stands the test of time way better. I consider The Vindictives to be not just one of the greatest punk bands of the early '90s, but also one of the greatest punk bands ever. That may sound like hyperbole, but the proof is in the pudding. How often do you hear a 28-song compilaton that isn't at least half garbage? The Many Moods Of... is almost all gold and features legendary tracks like "...And The World Isn't Flat Anymore", "Ugly American", "The Terrible Monster", "I Know People", "The Invisible Man", "I'm Sick", and "Circles". I fondly remember listening to it multiple times a day for weeks on end. And when I put it on today, I don't have to wonder why I loved it so much. It still kills.

The Vindictives called it a day in 1996 due to a serious health crisis that threatened Joey's life. The band would eventually re-unite and in 1999 released the wildly inventive concept album Hypno-Punko, which may have been too "out there" for fans who were expecting the same old Vindictives. After a handful releases in the early 2000s, the band was largely inactive until the release of last December's mono-flexi EP. The band is currently working on a new full-length album which will surely be great. I wholeheartedly recommend any and every thing The Vindictives have ever put their name on (their rendition of Leave Home was by far my favorite of the Ramones covers LPs). But The Many Moods Of The Vindictives is definitely where you'll want to start if you are currently unfamiliar with this incredible band. It's jam-packed with classic songs and primarily features the vintage Vindictives lineup of P.J. Parti on drums and Billy Blastoff on guitar joining Joey on vocals, Johnny Personality on bass, and the late Dr. Bob on guitar. If you've written off The Vindictives as a mere footnote of '90s pop-punk, check these clips below and prepare to be turned to the dark side!



Sunday, November 17, 2013

Radioactivity: Wow!

Within the first 20 seconds of Radioactivity's superb debut album, you might conclude that the Marked Men have gotten back together. Well, not quite! But Radioactivity is probably the next best thing. This group is a continuation of The Novice- the band Jeff Burke had going while he was living in Japan. Out of respect for his Novice band mates, Burke has changed the name of the group now that he's assembled a new lineup stateside with the likes of Mark Ryan and Gregory Rutherford on board. But musically, it's in the same style as The Novice. And some of the tracks on the album were originally Novice songs. Any way you shake it, you know what you're getting with Jeff Burke. So it's no surprise that the LP is full of songs in his signature buzzsaw pop style, and that they're predominantly short and fast and catchy as can be. I love that no matter how many times Jeff Burke plays on this kind of record, it's never any less thrilling to hear. He always finds new ways to keep the formula from getting stagnant, and it doesn't hurt that he writes consistently incredible songs. And when Burke does slow the tempos a little, you can hear him gravitating towards more of a pure power pop type sound. As you would expect, I've got no complaints about that!

Racing out of the gates, "Sickness" is vintage Jeff Burke goodness. It sets a tone that Burke, Ryan, and company enthusiastically maintain, powering through frenetic and supremely hooky tracks like "Other Life" and "World of Pleasure". And while there are plenty more awesome songs in the same vein ("When I'm Gone", "What You Want"), the variations from the formula are what ultimately distinguish Radioactivity from the Marked Men. The subtle Buzzcocks echoes of Burke's early songwriting become more obvious on bittersweet gems like "Alright" and "Don't Try". And towards the end, the album takes on somewhat of a stylistic shift. "The Last" and "Alone" completely abandon the frantic rush of the earlier cuts in favor of a mellowed-out, more sophisticated approach to power pop. And closing cut "Trusted You" is the kind of aching love song you might have heard on the radio at the dawn of the 1980s. But even with the evident "growth" in craftsmanship, the hooks are every bit as satisfying. In the end, you get an album that is very much typical of Jeff Burke - yet evolved enough to suggest that he's still progressing as an artist. He may have left Japan behind, but the influence of Japanese power pop continues to color his work.

In a year full of so many highly anticipated releases, Radioactivity's debut album kind of fell under my radar for a while. I knew it would be good, but I wasn't quite expecting it to be this good! It now holds the #2 position on my album of the year list. Every track is really good, and most are exceptional. With a second Radioactivity already on the way, I can't wait to hear what this band has in store for us next!



Thursday, November 14, 2013

Meet Maniac!

Christmas has come early at Rutledge Manor! Or maybe it's a late Halloween treat. Either way, I'm in powerpop/punk heaven! A few months back, I was all geeked out over L.A. Drugz - who feature Justin from the Clorox Girls and James from Images. Their new EP is my favorite release of 2013 so far (more on that in a couple weeks!). Well, Justin and James also play in another L.A. based group called Maniac starring Zache Davis from The Girls on vocals and bass. In on the action as well is guitarist Andrew Zappin. The lineup is star-studded and does not disappoint! The band's new single on Vancouver's La-Ti-Da Records is a total must-have for any regular follower of this blog. Fortunately this is not one of those situations where a bunch of guys start a band so they can branch out into jazz or world music. If you're a fan of any of the aforementioned bands or related acts like Red Dons and Cute Lepers, you'll love Maniac as well. The new single delivers two stellar tracks of catchy '77 style punk informed by power pop, and I'm especially enamored with the B-side "Pepe". It's so ridiculously good that it could very well give other bands inferiority complexes! Zappin's lead guitar work is absolutely phenomenal, and that central melody will quickly bore its way into your brain. With a full-length album coming soon, this single is just a tiny taste of what's to come from Maniac. Perhaps we've got an early frontrunner for next year's album of the year!



Monday, November 11, 2013

Wyatt Funderburk makes an album!

After a long career playing in wonderful bands like Second Saturday and producing the likes of Kurt Baker, Wyatt Funderburk has finally gotten around to making a solo album. And all I can say is wow! Not that it's a huge surprise considering the man's track record, but Novel and Profane is pure pop perfection from start to finish. Funderburk is an amazing songwriter with a warm, likable singing voice. And on this album, he combines so many different things I like into a singular vision of pop that is so distinctively him. Touchstones include '90s alternapop (Superdrag, Jellyfish, Fountains of Wayne), '70s AM gold, Beatles/Beach Boys classicism, and of course the productions of Jeff Lynne. But ultimately this album bears Funderburk's signature. He seamlessly mixes the old and the new and proves to be an adept storyteller. His melodies aren't just catchy - they're positively beautiful. And he's crafted an album so pleasant and engaging that I'd like to play it on repeat all day long. Even when the songs aren't exactly upbeat, Novel and Profane is like musical comfort food. I'm always sad when it comes to an end. 

As always, Funderburk's recording style hearkens back to the glory days of pop/rock. There's no trickery or excess involved - just simple, high quality production that allows the words and melodies to speak for themselves. The vocal harmonies are beautifully recorded but never overdone, and it's the songs themselves that play the starring role. It's really hard to pick a standout track since the tunes are so consistently great. And the variety of the material is highly impressive. Novel and Profane delivers everything from crunching modern rock ("Mandolin") to gorgeous minor key pop ("You Know What To Do", "North On 65") to epic ballads ("Nights Like This") to breezy country rock ("Feeling Good Tonight") to spot-on Tom Petty worship ("Love Will Lead The Way") - and none of it falters. And I love how Funderburk succeeds with songs that would perhaps come off as cheesy in the hands of a lesser artist. "Try To Be" would not have sounded out of place at a high school homecoming dance in 1988. And superb closing track "If I Ever Wanted Easier" is the kind of high soaring love song that used to thrive in more innocent times. It sounds like it should be playing over the closing credits of a cinematic love story that ends happily after countless trials and tribulations. Even the most unsentimental individuals will find themselves pumping their fists when that chorus comes in, believing wholeheartedly that love can prevail over any obstacle. If you enjoyed Kurt Baker's Brand New Beat (an album Funderburk produced and co-wrote), this song will strike a familiar chord.

Combining numerous references to the musical past with a decidedly contemporary sheen, Novel and Profane is an album for music lovers of all ages and stylistic preferences. At a time when most new music seems so meticulously targeted at niche demographics, it's refreshing to hear an artist who simply wants to write great songs that people can relate to. If I wanted to get the melody to "Summer" out of my head, I'd probably have to contact a doctor and have it surgically removed. But, you know, I'd rather not.

CD available from Jolly Ronnie Records!



Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Lovesores are back!

Holy crap - the Lovesores have made another record! And if that news doesn't excite you, I really gotta wonder about you! The last time we heard from the Lovesores, I proclaimed the band's Bubblegum Riot ten-inch to be as good as any record that Scott "Deluxe" Drake and Jeff Fieldhouse had ever played on. And I wasn't the only person saying that! If they'd followed it up with another record even half as good, I would have been plenty happy. But they've done far better than that - new EP Formaldehyde picks up where Bubblegum Riot left off, and the "Mick and Keith of punk rock" are still throwing fire like the last 20 years never happened! The blistering title track can be added to the growing list of Lovesores' signature anthems. Drake's vocals are so ferocious and virulent that you'd swear he's holding the secret to eternal youth, and those guitars slash and burn like nobody's business. If you like filthy and furious punk rock n' roll, "Formaldehyde" needs to be on your iPod tonight! You could play this track for almost anyone and successfully pass it off as a long lost punk rock classic from 1977 (or 1993, same difference). Again, the rest of the band (Boz Bennes, Adam Kattau, and Alex Fast) proves to be as formidable of a supporting cast as Drake and Fieldhouse have ever worked with (Damn - listen to those drums!). And stylistically, these two living legends continue to tear into the musical formula they helped define - demonstrating that they're still the best in the business. Accept no imitations! Grab a strong drink with one hand, crank up the volume with the other, and enjoy these killer tunes in all their degenerate glory. Can't wait for an LP!



Sunday, November 03, 2013

My first Red Dons review!

What's the best present-day band that I've never reviewed before? Easy answer: Red Dons. Why have I never reviewed Red Dons before? That's the tougher question! But, you know, it's never too late to atone for past omissions. Red Dons have a new 7" out on Grave Mistake and Taken By Surprise Records - their first since last summer's "Ausländer". And in keeping with previous releases, their sound continues to be one-of-a-kind yet still firmly in the realm of the melodic punk style I'm known to tout. Not many punk bands are releasing A-sides nearly five minutes in length. Even fewer could actually get away with it! But "Cold Hearted", which leads off Notes On The Underground, is up there with the best of the Red Dons' 7" tracks. Imagine, if you will, a genetic experiment where Echo and the Bunnymen's DNA got mixed with the Marked Men's. The intro approaches two minutes and highlights some truly exquisite lead guitar work. It's brooding and eerie, but by no means plodding. Even after the vocals come in, the song's dark undercurrent is no way obscured by its overt catchiness. If this is a sign of what's to come from Red Dons, we all should be very excited!

The back half of Notes On The Underground is more conventional but hardly pedestrian. "Losing Track" is textbook contemporary pop/punk with catchy leads, chunky bass lines, crazy sick drumming, and a melody that you will not be able to get out of your head for weeks. Coming on the heels of the more measured "Cold Hearted", it brings a nice surge of energy to the record. It's my fave track of the three. "Dead Ender" is in a similar vein of crisp & punchy melodic punk. It didn't shock me to discover that the latter two tracks were recorded a few years back, while "Cold Hearted" was just recorded this year. But in spite of the contrast between the sides, Notes On The Underground is an entirely satisfying EP. "Losing Track" and "Dead Ender" may be "lighter" in tone than Red Dons standards like "Ausländer" and "A Forced Turning Point". But they are killer tracks, and are sure to please anyone who's nuts for the "Dirtnap sound" . Given that the core members of this band are separated by thousands of miles and a very large ocean, it's no surprise that Notes On The Underground was three years in the making. But if you're a fan, you'll have to admit it was totally worth the wait. My first Red Dons review will definitely not be my last!



Friday, November 01, 2013

Return of The Sensibles!

Like one of those giant, one-ounce straws of Pixy Stix chased with a double shot of Espresso, the new Sensibles album hits you with enough energy and over the top sweetness to ensure that you'll be smiling for hours. Put this record on, and you cannot have a bad day!

I instantly fell in love with Milan's Sensibles after hearing their last EP, and my only concern with the arrival of a full album was that they'd mess with a winning formula. So did they? Not even a little! The Sensibles have chosen to perfect the recipe rather than alter it, and this time it's all the sugar and twice the caffeine! From the opening strains of the accurately-titled "Happy", A Bunch of Animals is a joyful and upbeat affair full of infectious melodies and endearingly bubbly vocals from lead singer Stella. And while a lot of bands of this style can string together three or four quality tracks, The Sensibles have proven talented enough to fill an entire album with insanely catchy pop songs. Recorded at T.U.P. Studio with the great Bruno Barcella producing, A Bunch of Animals attains that perfect mix of bubblegum pop and buzzsaw punk that countless bands aim for but too often fail to achieve. I wholeheartedly recommend the album to any individual aged 1-100 who enjoys music that makes you wanna jump around and sing along exuberantly. It's just so much fun!

If there's anything "different" about this Sensibles record in relation to the last one, it's that the band has really found its unique voice within the familiar powerpop/punk style. No doubt, I still hear echoes of certain classic bands (Buzzcocks, Shonen Knife, early Muffs). But at this point, The Sensibles just sound like The Sensibles! A Bunch of Animals takes the boundless energy of the band's self-titled EP and sustains it for a full album, with none of the 12 tracks exceeding three minutes and only two surpassing two and a half. It's truly a dizzying succession of feelgood hooks and indelible choruses, and that can never be a bad thing in my book! There's not a single song here that wouldn't have been a standout on an EP. Every time you think you've finally heard "the hit", the next track comes along and makes you reconsider. From the gorgeously wistful "My Mattress" to the ultra exhilarating "I'm A Brat" to the impossibly adorable "Kitten Blues", the material is consistently engaging and varied enough to keep things fresh. The Sensibles do more than just entertain you. They totally win you over! After you hear this record, you'll want to hang out with The Sensibles. You'll want to cook them breakfast and buy them gifts for Christmas. You'll want a tattoo of their logo on your left calf. I've been a pop-punk fan for a very long time, and I'd say this album is a potential classic of the genre. Listen and love!