Thursday, September 29, 2016

The return of Ryan Allen And His Extra Arms!

It has been a year and a half since Ryan Allen released Heart String Soul - which has quickly become one of my two or three favorite albums of the present decade. Heart String Soul is that rare power pop record that I would recommend even to non-fans of the genre, and Allen is as fine of a singer and songwriter as I've heard in recent years. When I found out that Allen (Destroy This Place, Thunderbirds Are Now!) was coming out with a new solo album on Save Your Generation Records, of course I was delighted. And even with my expectations set sky-high, the new album Basement Punk is everything I was hoping for and more. It had to be a great challenge to top a nearly flawless album, but Ryan Allen has done exactly that!

While still very much a pop record, Basement Punk has a little bit of a different feel than its predecessor. It celebrates a wonderful and specific time in music - when the sudden mass exposure of Nirvana, etc. caused so many of us to start digging deeper into the "secret" world of college radio, independent record labels, and DIY shows in tiny venues. So enamored is Allen with the indie/alternative/college rock sound of the early '90s that he intended for Basement Punk to sound like something that would have come out of Boston's Fort Apache Studios in its heyday. That Buffalo Tom/Dinosaur Jr./Lemonheads vibe is right up my alley, and it brings back fond memories of all the great music I discovered left of the dial in my young adulthood. Opening track "Watch Me Explode" would have fit perfectly in between Husker Du and Sloan on one of the homemade comp tapes of my youth, and it's a fantastic tone-setter for an album that consistently delights. And while tracks like "Gimmie Sum More" (a throwback to classic era Soul Asylum/Goo Goo Dolls) and "Without A Doubt" (think early, punky Lemonheads) carry on in a similar vein, there's so much more going on with this album. In keeping with the '90s inspirations, Allen successfully tackles shoegaze ("Alex Whiz") and emo/post-hardcore ("Basement Punks"). The latter, a loving tribute to the late Sarah Zeidan, just might be my favorite Ryan Allen song to date. It's a perfect example of what Allen does so well as an artist: sing about his own personal experiences in such a way that the listener feels a genuine connection. "Basement Punks" is as stirring and life-affirming as music ever gets, and it sounds like it ought to be playing over the closing credits of a movie you loved so much that you didn't want to leave the theater. If being part of a local music community has ever brought joy and meaning to your life, this song will give you tingles.

Even with its wider array of musical influences, Basement Punk is ultimately the work of an exceptionally gifted craftsman of guitar pop. Allen's melodies are just so pretty, and he has this seemingly innate sense of how to make a song catchy. In "Chasing a Song", "Mal n' Ange", and the fittingly titled "Gorgeous With Guitars", Basement Punk possesses a core trio of pure pop songs that surely have Alex Chilton and Chris Bell smiling from the great beyond. And if album closer "Everything (In Moderation)" sounds like it could have been on the new Nick Piunti album, it's hardly a surprise that these two great friends are rubbing off on each other (Piunti, in fact, is very quick to credit Allen for helping make Trust Your Instincts the album that it is).

I think I became a Ryan Allen fan the very first time I heard him open his mouth. He's got a voice that makes you immediately want to root for him, and he has the courage to share deeply personal parts of himself with anyone who might be listening. Any record of his is like a novel with a likable narrator. It goes without saying that power pop fans ought to be lining up to buy Basement Punk. But again Allen has made an album that's truly for everyone, and his stories and reflections really get to the essence of what it means to be human. What Ryan Allen is above all else is a classic American singer/songwriter, and I promise not to denounce my fandom if he makes the pages of Rolling Stone and sings "Alex Whiz" on Jimmy Fallon. Order Basement Punk today from Allen's Bandcamp, and Detroit peeps can check out the album's release show tomorrow night in Ferndale!


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Back to the '90s!

I'm into a new semester at school, which means I've had to slow things down with the blog. It will probably be the end of the week before I get my next review posted. In the meantime, I wanted to share some YouTube playlists I've created that celebrate the punk rock of the '90s. It was in the '90s that I came to discover punk rock, and it was exciting to "come up" in the punk world when there were so amazing bands and labels out there. These playlists reflect what I was listening to and writing about in the mid-to-late '90s: mainly the '77 punk revival, garage-punk, street punk, and pop-punk. Through the magic of YouTube, I can again hear songs from two decades ago that I otherwise would have never heard again! It's fun to write about music, but it's even more fun to share that music with others directly. If you fondly remember the punk music of the '90s, these playlists will be an enjoyable trip back in time. And if '90s punk rock was a little before your time, you just might discover some great bands you were not aware of. There were a few bands that I wanted to include that I could not find on YouTube, but all in all I was able to dig up a whole lot of great stuff! Each playlist is devoted to a different year. There's one for 1996, one for 1997, and one for 1998. Enjoy, and let me know if there's anything I forgot!



Friday, September 23, 2016

Duck & Cover: new EP!

The last time I reviewed Boston's Duck & Cover, I stated that I was looking forward to future releases based on what were clearly some formidable songwriting chops. 20 months later, I'm happy to report that my expectations have totally been justified!

Typical of a Boston based band, Duck & Cover (ex/current The Coffin Lids, The Acro-brats, Bang Camaro, Black Cheers, Vampire Lezbos, The Throwaways, The Drags, Wild Zero) is all about THE ROCK. This is the type of band that you can count upon to plug in, play loud, and kick you in the ass with some high quality rock n' roll. What is noticeable about new EP Stuck In Decline is that everything sounds bigger. I'm talking the hooks, the production, and even the band's thunderous dual guitar attack. If the last EP was a well-executed fusion of hard rock and punk/garage, the vibe here is more along the lines of the great hooky arena rock of the '70s and '80s. "Yeah, Don't You" is an absolute blast - a big, catchy tune that just explodes with attitude and energy. As it comes on with guitars blazing and drums thumping, I envision Duck & Cover playing live and delighting crowds. "Wasted" is in a similar vein - a punchy melodic rocker that puts the power in power pop. "Touch & Go", with its epic guitar shredding and urgent vocal from Chris Brat, sounds like the ballsiest '80s hair metal song you ever heard. When the band wants to go into full-throttle, set-your-hair-on-fire rock mode ("Sheriff of Broken Jaw"), it still can. But what I'm generally hearing here is the kind of band that could make rock radio listenable again. A cover of Cheap Trick's "Way of the World" tips the cap to an obvious influence, and closing track "Out Alive" shows off the band's tender side without needing to go the cliche ballad route. Duck & Cover has everything a great rock n' roll band needs: a powerhouse lead singer, two kick-ass guitarists, a top-notch rhythm section, and killer tunes to spare!  

It's an irrefutable law of nature that there will be a ton of great rock n' roll bands in Boston at any given time.  That continues to be the case today, and Duck & Cover is one of the bands leading the way. If you like hard-rocking tunes with big hooks, Stuck In Decline is not to be missed. Get the digital album from Bandcamp, or contact the band to order a CD!


Friday, September 16, 2016

The New Frustrations have a Bandcamp!

Hey! I've got something really great for you today! Thanks to the modern miracle of streaming music, I'm re-encountering beloved releases of yore that I feared were gone forever. When I found out that The New Frustrations had put their existing catalog up on Bandcamp, I literally screamed for joy. A decade ago, I viewed this Massachusetts-based band as the best thing going in all of music. Formed from the ashes of criminally underrated '90s punk greats The johnnies, The New Frustrations were the best parts of power pop and '70s punk rolled together in a manner reminiscent of classic Boston bands like the Dogmatics, Neighborhoods, Real Kids, and Outlets. Their demo, titled The Canton Sessions, absolutely floored me when I first heard it ten years ago. Listening to it again today, I totally get why I made such a fuss over this thing! It totally holds up, and now you can download it for any price of your choosing. A band made up of several talented singers and songwriters (including the late, great Mike Scagliarini), The New Frustrations were modest in calling The Canton Sessions a "demo". Each of the five original tracks could have been a single in its own right - and "Way Out" was in fact re-recorded for the band's 2007 debut 7" Power Pop Rocks. The 7", like the demo, is a name your price download over at Bandcamp. All of this music has been re-released in anticipation of a brand new EP from The New Frustrations due out this fall. These guys are the best dudes, and new music from them will put a perfect cap on what has been another tremendous year for power pop. Check out the tunes and stay tuned for more!


Monday, September 12, 2016

Telephone Lovers' debut album!

My immediate response to first hearing Telephone Lovers was to surmise that the band had to be from Los Angeles. I got that right, although I may have been about 40 years off in pinning down the time frame! Telephone Lovers' self-titled debut just screams "L.A. power pop" - and in my mind I see this band sharing a stage with The Nerves or 20/20 in 1977. Telephone Lovers take it back to a time when power pop was one of our purest forms of rock n' roll - coming on like modern day heirs to the likes of Dwight Twilley, The Raspberries, Flamin' Groovies, and Scruffs. Even with an added pinch of New York Dolls/Hollywood Brats street tough glamour, the vibe here is so perfectly mid-'70s power pop that it's not hard to imagine any of these tracks turning up on the old Rhino Come Out and Play compilation.

Having heard quite a few bands of late take some influence from the boogie-ish side of '70s power pop, I have to put Telephone Lovers up there among the very best of the bunch. They've got the red-hot guitar action down pat - but not at the expense of quality songwriting. It really comes through that these guys have great affection for classic power pop and raucous rock n' roll in general. No doubt about it, Telephone Lovers is a top ten LP for 2016. Digital album is available now from Bandcamp, and vinyl is coming in December from Wanda Records!


Friday, September 09, 2016

New album from Nick Piunti!

We are living through a new golden age of power pop - and Nick Piunti is one of its shining stars. A rock n' roll lifer who began writing and recording music as a kid in the '70s, Piunti has brought a wealth of musical and life experience to his recent solo career. His albums 13 In My Head and Beyond The Static received glowing reviews and top ten commendations from nearly every prominent power pop blog you could think of. Now he has completely outdone himself with his superb new LP titled Trust Your Instincts.

Out on Marty Scott's JEM Records, Trust Your Instincts is exactly what we've come to expect from Nick Piunti: ten exquisitely-crafted pop songs with amazing lyrics and hooks to die for. Trust Your Instincts sounds a little like the pure pop album I've been waiting decades for Paul Westerberg to make. If that sounds like "dad rock" to you, Piunti will gladly wear that as a badge of honor. While I will always count on power pop bands to mythologize the infatuations, torrid romances, and inevitable heartbreaks of youth, I love that Nick Piunti is using the same musical form to speak to the significant experiences of adult life. If "power pop for grown-ups" is a genre unto itself, we are very fortunate to witness one of its masters at work.  

Trust Your Instincts is typical of a Nick Piunti album in that it's all about the songs. Melody, voice, and lyrics take center stage - with the supporting players (Donny Brown on drums, Andy Reed on bass and synth, Ryan Allen on guitar) beautifully serving the material. While by far the most personal and lyrically deep of Piunti's solo albums, Trust Your Instincts is no less immediately satisfying than its predecessors. It exhibits all of the hallmarks of great pop: gorgeous, instantly pleasing melodies; choruses that grab your attention and stick in your head for days; and harmonies that hit the proverbial sweet spot. "One Hit Wonder" is such a perfect specimen of the three minute pop hit that it seems unfathomable that it's not all over the radio. Equally impressive is "Fade Out", which comes on so mellow and low-key until that hook comes out of nowhere and just knocks you out. And the guitar riff propelling "This Ain't the Movies" is worth its weight in gold. Saying that an album "rewards repeated listens" is usually a polite way of observing that it contains no obvious hits. But Trust Your Instincts is a genuinely hit-laden release that only gets better as you peel off its layers and really dig into the songs. No doubt, almost anyone writing pop songs today would kill to be able come up with just one tune as good as "Blame In Vain" or "Dumb It Down".

Marty Scott - who signed Pezband and helped broker the distribution deal that brought Cheap Trick at Budokan to an American audience - has a long history in the world of power pop. He left the music industry for several decades, but his interest in a new generation of artists compelled him to revive the JEM label three years ago. It's no surprise, then, that he went out and signed Nick Piunti. If you're looking to explore some of the great things that have been happening with power pop in recent years, the recordings of Nick Piunti are a fine place to start. Trust Your Instincts is out today and available for purchase from iTunes, Amazon, and Bandcamp!


Tuesday, September 06, 2016

New Big Eyes album!

Big Eyes are a band I've been touting since the early days of this blog, and it has been a joy to witness the group's ascent to the top tier of today's independent rock n' roll scene. Having waited three years for a follow-up to the band's 2013 breakthrough Almost Famous, I found myself expecting totally huge things from the brand-new LP Stake My Claim. Well: totally huge things are exactly what I got! Kait Eldridge, back in Brooklyn after several years in Seattle, has returned with a renewed purpose and a revamped supporting cast. While Almost Famous found Big Eyes adding quite a bit of rock to its appealing mix of punk and power pop, Stake My Claim takes that direction even further. No longer a power trio, Big Eyes are now a proper hard-rocking four piece with thundering dual guitars. The resultant new album is a true statement: a good, old-fashioned hooky rock record that speaks to the importance of taking control of your own life. While still totally in touch with her punk roots (no song on the album exceeds three minutes), Eldridge has molded Big Eyes into precisely what you'd expect from a band named after a Cheap Trick song. In tandem with Paul Ridenour, she has kicked up both the power and the finesse of the band's guitar attack. The concept of the "rock star" might as well cease to exist if she isn't considered to be one. 

More "rock" or not, Stake My Claim is no less tuneful or hook-driven than previous Big Eyes albums. In fact, this release is one of those rare cases where power pop is exactly what it claims to be. Eldridge has written some of the best pop songs of her life, and with her band she has rocked the living hell out of them. "Behind Your Eyes" and "When You Were 25" are immediately identifiable as classic Big Eyes type songs - but with a bigger, fuller sound to them. If "Giving It Up For Good" sounded any more like '80s Joan Jett, I'd be checking the credits for a guest appearance. "Curse of the Tides" is one of Eldridge's finest achievements as a songwriter: a tune that clocks in at under a minute but doesn't leave you feeling cheated. And in the excellent album closer "Alls I Know", we get the kind of song that Kait Eldridge can do better than just about anyone else out there. It's everything I love about pop and punk and rock mixed together without any regard for unnecessary divisions between genres. 

Call it power pop with an emphasis on the power. Call it hard rock with hooks. Call it whatever you want. Stake My Claim is the work of a long-promising band fully stepping into greatness. Order a copy today from Don Giovanni Records! 


Friday, September 02, 2016

Introducing Mike Spent Black Belt!

Ahhh, good old Mike Spent....he is as diehard and true of a punk rocker as the world has ever known. The Spent Idols - one of my go-to bands when I was first getting into punk rock in the mid-'90s - were heavily influential on the direction my musical tastes (and perhaps my entire life!) ultimately took going forward. And the band's beloved lead singer is still at it after 35 years plus, unchanged and undeterred by the evolving trends in music and culture. I imagine that the Spent Idols will continue to exist in some form for as long as Mike is drawing air (I imagine him someday in the old folks' home, belting out "Dance To the Beat of the Living Dead" for the enjoyment of his fellow residents). But now for something completely different, Mike has a new musical project to present to the world.

Mike Spent Black Belt is quite a departure from the '77 punk style - the first time that the man has allowed himself to be properly "produced". The producer in question is Richard Duguay (Personality Crisis, the Hellhounds), a Canadian punk old-timer perhaps best known for his contributions to Guns N' Roses' The Spaghetti Incident?. Along with Duguay on guitar, the supporting band consists of Loren Molinare on guitar, Diane Nile on bass, and Tony Matteucci on drums. If those names look familiar, it's because Molinare and Matteucci are members of Detroit rock legends The Dogs. The first release from Mike Spent Black Belt is a digital single that just might leave you in a state of shock. Who ever thought that Mike Spent would record a ballad?! "I Am a Lion" is indeed a ballad - and quite a good one to boot! While clearly no crooner, Mike legitimately sings here. I like how the rasp and world-weariness of his voice work for him. The dude's got soul. I'm reminded of some of Mike Hudson's recent recordings - which makes sense given that Molinare and Matteucci played on those as well. Second song "Sun Goes Grey" is based on a riff that Molinare originally wrote over 30 years ago. An homage to the moodier side of '60s garage, it definitely brings to mind the darker creations of the Kinks, Animals, Yardbirds, etc.

The first thing I thought upon hearing these songs from Mike Spent Black Belt is that this is uncharted territory for a man known purely as a yeller. But Mike Spent actually singing sounds exactly like....Mike Spent actually singing! The voice coming through is so distinctively his, and it's really cool to hear his talents applied in a new way. Who ever said that being punk rock means you can't work with a quality producer and accomplished musicians? I can't imagine Spent Idols fans hearing this single and not thinking it's totally great.