Saturday, November 24, 2018

Brad Marino - Almost Here

Brad Marino has been releasing new music way faster than I can keep up with it! Since my review of Four Track Attack back in June, Brad has released another four digital singles and now a brand-new Christmas EP! It's like every time I blink, I miss another essential track! So I decided to put my time off this week to good use and play some catch-up! Almost Here features two Marino originals along with a cover of "Blue Christmas". The title track hits so close to home for me. It has that wonderfully festive feel right down to the sleigh bells, but ultimately it celebrates a quiet Christmas spent with your significant other. The lines "But this year it will be only you and me/Because we don't need gifts under our tree" describes my own Christmas experience to a T! If you prefer more traditional holiday sentiment, "Merry Christmas, Happy New Year" is a perfect combination of every happy Christmas song ever written. It's an instant classic in my book, and you know how suspicious I am of any Christmas song written after 1970! The "Blue Christmas" cover is terrific - but would you expect anything less from Brad Marino?!

I suppose, given my tardiness on the Brad Marino front, I ought to say a few words on the recent digital singles. Here are my words: go buy them! "Broken Clocks" and "It's Not Right" are Marino originals, while "Fit To Be Tied" and "Don't Do The Crime" were written by Michael Chaney. Brad plays guitar, bass, and drums on all of these tracks with Kris Rodgers joining in on keyboards. I'm especially partial to the rocker "Don't Do The Time". With great lyrics from Chaney about a drug smuggler done dirty by his lady, this one has a definite New Trocaderos feel. "It's Not Right" is another highlight for me. It sounds like something Joey Ramone might have written, and you know I'm a sucker for that sort of perfect pop!

Given that The Connection Christmas album is one of my go-tos at this time of the year, it's no surprise that I'd be into a Brad Marino Christmas release. While sometimes I'll use the word "free" to describe a "name your price" download at Bandcamp, I will highly encourage paying for this one. Brad is donating all proceeds to St. Jude Children's Hospital. Now that is the true spirit of Christmas.


Friday, November 23, 2018

McLovings - Love Strike

When I first reviewed McLovings back in 2016, I knew that they were my kind of band! This fab foursome from San Sebastián, Spain is back with its third release and like the previous two it can be had for the very reasonable price of free! What I enjoy about Love Strike is that it's one of those records that just makes you feel good. Both tracks are upbeat power pop that will have you singing along and furiously bobbing your within seconds. Seriously: no matter how crappy things are going, you simply can't have a bad day if you listen to these songs! "She Brings Me Coffee" boasts a hook you won't be able to get out of your head, and I like that it ends with an extra jolt of energy. Man, this one ought to be a hit! That melody is contagious. "The Place Is Here, The Time Is Now" actually dials up the energy with an even faster tempo. It's a perfect example of why I've always had a soft spot for European power pop. I can just imagine this song being performed live and seeing people going crazy dancing!

In my years of covering music, I've been struck by how much passion for rock n' roll exists within the borders of Spain. In that country, they just totally get it! Such an environment produces bands like McLovings, and the world is better for it!


Thursday, November 22, 2018

Vista Blue - 1621

It's Thanksgiving here in the good old U.S.A., and this year Vista Blue has released new music in honor of the holiday. There are literally thousands of Christmas songs, but how many Thanksgiving songs do you know of? Not many, right? Well Vista Blue is gonna fix that for us! 1621, a free download over at Vista Blue's Bandcamp, is essentially a pop/punk symphony in three movements. It's based on the historical first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts (which residents of Virginia will claim was at best the second Thanksgiving, but let's not get into that!). Basically this sounds like any other Vista Blue release, which is a very good thing indeed. "They Stole Our Corn" is a song I would have loved just as much when I was 7 as I do now at 47. It would have fit perfectly on the band's recent EP of kid-friendly songs. You can't really tell the tale of the first Thanksgiving without acknowledging that the natives were robbed! "Plymouth Rock!" is an upbeat instrumental that leads into "Massasoit Crashed the Party" - a clever and impossibly catchy rendering of the Thanksgiving origin story. That chorus could very well be stuck in my head until next Thanksgiving!

If you've never heard of a band doing a Thanksgiving-themed release before, leave it to Vista Blue to be the first! Listening to 1621 is about to become an annual Thanksgiving tradition of mine - along with such things as rooting against the Cowboys and breaking out my Christmas beers for the season. And if you don't share my immense enthusiasm for Thanksgiving songs, stay tuned for Vista Blue's new Christmas EP releasing tonight!


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Neighborhood Brats - Claw Marks

If I had polled you all at the beginning of the year on which 2018 album release you were most looking forward to, there's a good chance that Neighborhood Brats' Claw Marks would have been the #1 choice. After waiting four long years for a follow-up to the band's brilliant 2014 debut LP Recovery, a lot of us were super-stoked about Claw Marks finally coming out. Well now it's out, and my cliched response would have been to say that it does not disappoint. But the hell with that! Claw Marks does far more than not disappoint. It's even better than I thought it would be! If I were stating my case for Neighborhood Brats being one of our greatest present-day punk bands, this album would be exhibit A!

Out on Dirt Cult Records, Claw Marks is a great example of a punk band building off of its core sound. It's immediately recognizable as a Neighborhood Brats record, yet it displays songwriting chops far beyond what Jenny and George would have been capable of a few years back. There are still plenty of nods to late '70s/early '80s California punk, but this album also incorporates a heavy Aussie punk influence along with the dark melodic sensibilities often associated with "modern" punk rock. As always, Jenny's impassioned vocals are perfectly in sync with the sheer power of the band's music. Digging deep into these songs, you'll find tremendous meaning in what Jenny is singing. Sometimes her lyrics are topical/political; other times, they are intensely personal. Put it all together, and you really do have a soundtrack album for the real-life dystopia that is 2018 America ("Late Stage Capitalism" just might be THE protest song for our times). From the furious, vintage Neighborhood Brats banger "Misery Parade" to the thumping, Aussie-inspired "Dumpster Values" to the made-for-singing-along anthem "Down 3rd" to the pitch-black apocalyptic pop of "Touching The Void", this album is full of memorable songs in a wide variety of styles. The inclusion of "Night Shift" and "Comfort Women" from the band's most recent EP was a smart choice; those songs fit the sound and tone of the album so perfectly that it would have seemed wrong to leave them out.

Speaking of that aforementioned EP: Night Shift was the first new music from Neighborhood Brats in nearly four years, and it quickly showed that a long hiatus had not diminished the band in the least. On the strength of that EP, I expected Claw Marks to be something special. And that's exactly what it is. If you long for the days when punk music meant something, I'd urge you to check out Neighborhood Brats and discover that it means more than ever.


Sunday, November 18, 2018

Rich Ragany -...Like We'll Never Make It

I've been saying for years that Rich Rags is one of our greatest living songwriters, and he sure is making me sound less crazy with every new release. ...Like We'll Never Make It, his solo debut, ought to be the album that lands him on the covers of magazines and onto the mainstream pop charts. He has really outdone himself with this release - which is being hailed as his "singer/songwriter" album but is actually a logical progression from Role Models' brilliant third LP Dance Moves. Rags has grown from a great punk rock and power pop songwriter to a great songwriter, period.

For this solo endeavor, Rags assembled a backing band so superb that they have since become a permanent entity called Rich Ragany and The Digressions. Gaff (Glitterati and Dedwardians) is on guitar and served as Rags' right hand in the creation of this album. Also on board are Ricky McGuire (UK Subs, The Men They Couldn't Hang) on bass, the incomparable Kris Rodgers on keyboards, longtime Role Models producer Andy Brook on piano, Kit Swing (Mallory Knox) on backing vocals, and Role Models' own Simon Maxwell on drums. While we may often dread our favorite artists' ascent into "maturity", that's exactly what I've been waiting for in Rags' case. He has too much to offer the world to be eternally pigeonholed as a power pop guy. ...Like We'll Never Make It is the work of a masterful songwriter who has come fully into his own. The story he's telling is his own, but in a way it's all of ours as well. This is an album about what it really means to be alive. In particular it celebrates the mistakes and missteps that are so crucial to a life fully lived. The album title is a reference to leaving regrets behind and always moving forward in life. Who can't relate to that? What's so immediately striking about this album is Gaff's jangly and absolutely beautiful guitar tone. It's perhaps the one element that distinguishes ...Like We'll Never Make It from a Role Models album. It lends the album a warm, soothing feel that meshes marvelously with Rags' earthy everyman vocals and straight-from-the-heart songwriting. And while the album does have Rags' name on it, a lot of these songs would not be what they are without the contributions of his band mates. Kris Rodgers on keyboards has a long history of making great songs even better, and you'll hear that here for sure. And if you doubt the importance of a backing vocalist in a band, listen to the impact Kit Swing has on "Your Distance" and "Later Than It Is".

Considering that Rich Rags is a Canadian living in London, perhaps "Americana" is not the best label to apply to his debut solo album. But on this release, he definitely takes a seat next to great American alt-rock songwriters like Paul Westerberg, Dave Pirner, and John Easdale (vocally, he resembles the latter two quite a bit). ...Like We'll Never Make It is the perfect album to play while you're sitting quietly on a Sunday morning and reflecting on your own triumphs and failures. If that makes it "dad rock", well then this ought to be the gold standard of the genre! Of the album's ten tracks, all feel like essential pieces. "That World" is vintage Rags and will appeal immediately to longtime fans. "Your Distance" stuns with beautiful simplicity. "Like We'll Never Make It" is the life-affirming anthem you'd expect from one of the album's pivotal tracks (hopefully Mike Mills doesn't hear that chorus and decide to file suit!). "Lose With Me", the album's other pivotal track, is a gorgeous country ballad that leaves us with the crucial words "I've never felt more alive". Elsewhere Rags turns to Faces/Mott barroom boogie on "Scotty Thompson", exquisite mature pop on "Heart's Souvenir", and stripped-down acoustic soul-bearing on the brilliant closer "Easy". It's always tremendously satisfying to get to the final track of an album and discover that an artist has saved the best for last. "Easy" is the song on this release that has stuck with me the most, and I keep going back to it to soak in every word. Rich Rags just may have written his own "Here Comes A Regular"!

Coming off of three Role Models albums in three years, Rich Rags could have been excused for taking a break from this whole making records thing. But let's all be thankful that he didn't! Once again working with the PledgeMusic platform, Rags was able to fund, record, and release this remarkable album. And in typical Rags fashion, I believe he's already working on songs for his next album with The Digressions! Let's enjoy this one for now. In a just world, Rags would achieve worldwide popularity to rival Ryan Adams - or better yet, Bryan Adams.


Friday, November 16, 2018

Jagger Holly - The Last Of The International Playboys

Having come up in the zine world as a pop-punk kid in those ancient times of the '90s, I am pleased as punch to hear this genre of music still thriving today. There's tremendous Ramones-inspired/three-chord talent out there right now, and we are very fortunate to have labels like Monster Zero and Mom's Basement Records that devote themselves to filling the world with great pop-punk. It's no surprise, then, that those two labels have a hand in what I consider to be the best pop-punk album of the last several years. The Last Of The International Playboys is the second album from Jagger Holly, a band featuring Jay Dee from Johnie 3 and Spastic Hearts along with members of DeeCracks and On My Arms. Essentially what we have here is a pop-punk supergroup - one born in Ohio and now based in Austria. I was a big fan of Spastic Hearts, and I like Jagger Holly even better. The sound is pure pop-punk that fully embraces the pop side of the equation (oh, those harmonies!). The Last Of The International Playboys brings to mind genre standard-bearers such as MTX and Darlington, but not in a copyist sense. This is just great pop-punk in the "let's have a good time!" mold. Literally and figuratively, it's the perfect mix of American pop-punk and European pop-punk. Jay, I mean Jagger, writes lyrics that make me laugh out loud but also show genuine tenderness in the love song department. Topic-wise, these 12 tracks cover all of the essential issues in life: partying, longing for lost love, pursuing new love, hanging out at the beach, heartbreak, romance, and crushing on porn stars. Usually with a pop-punk record, I go through all of the tracks and try to identify which songs are the "hits". I can't do that with this album since literally EVERY song is a hit!

The Last Of The International Playboys won't turn any non-fans of pop-punk to the dark side. But if you are a fan of pop-punk, I 100% guarantee that you will love this album and play it to death. From the lyrics to the melodies to the vocals to the musicianship, you simply won't hear this style of music done better. And if you could quantify fun, this would be a ten out of ten. Blue vinyl is available from Monster Zero, and red vinyl is available from Mom's Basement. Outloud! Records is releasing the album on CD. This is the summer album of 2018 - arriving just in time for winter!


Monday, November 05, 2018

Sweatshop Boys - Two Men

I last reviewed Israel's Sweatshop Boys way back in 2015 when their outstanding EP Always Polite, Never Happy had recently come out. I have to say that that particular release has held up really well over the last three years plus. When it comes to today's powerpop/punk/garage bands, Sweatshop Boys are up there with the best of 'em. So I am more than pleased that the band has finally released its second album - the long-awaited follow-up to 2013's The Great Depression. It's called Two Men, and the band describes it as "an existentialist day dream for all those who stare at the abyss and spit right into it". If you think that sounds like some pretty heavy stuff, I'd say you're right! But what I enjoy about this album is that it tackles serious philosophical questions of existence (Is life devoid of meaning? Are we all completely alone?) using music that's totally upbeat and catchy. Rather than using fun tunes to escape the problems of life, Sweatshop Boys uses them to confront them! As the band says, these songs won't make your problems go away. But at least you'll feel less alone. Isn't there something tremendously comforting in knowing that when you have troubling thoughts about your very existence, someone else is thinking those exact same things?!

Musically, Two Men recalls a time when powerpop/punk/garage hybrids like Marked Men, Steve Adamyk Band, and Sonic Avenues were ruling the punk underground. With that musical style no longer as commonplace as it was in the early part of the decade, it's nice to hear Sweatshop Boys carry it off so well. These guys know how to write a punchy punk tune with melody, and collectively they form one of the tightest units out there. Two Men delivers energy and hooks in abundance, but "lightweight" is the last word you could ever use to describe any of these 12 tracks. You might think "Distractions" is just another power pop love song, but dig deeper and you'll find it's really about something else entirely. Elsewhere the band searches for answers to the great existential questions, sometimes pondering the pointlessness of it all ("Vertigo", "A Terminal") and sometimes finding solace in Beach Boys records or unfulfilling sexual conquests ("Brian"; "Too Young").

As you would expect with five years between albums, Two Men finds Sweatshop Boys taking a big leap forward. Yet it's still tremendously satisfying purely as a powerpop/punk record. If you choose to pay close attention to the lyrics (hint: you should!), you can enjoy this release on a whole other level. I love that these songs are extremely profound yet often quite witty/humorous. This is the soundtrack to your latest existential crisis, and somehow it turns out to be a blast!


Friday, November 02, 2018

The SUCK - "Party Town, USA"

What could be better to kick off the weekend than a triumphant shot of good times straight out of Party Town, USA?! Where is Party Town, USA? I think I might know, but I prefer to think of it as a state of mind. Its most celebrated residents are the SUCK: internationally adored ambassadors of street rock and the best new thing to happen to music in 2018. The exclusive digital single "Party Town, USA" is out now on Something To Do Records. It's the third release in the label's monthly singles series titled Something To Do Music For Something To Do People. If you were lucky enough to snag a copy of the SUCK'S debut EP earlier this year, you know exactly what to expect: top-tier Ramones-inspired rock n' roll that kicks all kinds of ass and is above all else FUN. I love the catchy leads and massive guitars on this track, and seriously these lyrics make Andrew WK sound like a lightweight partier! Honestly, I feel like the SUCK will save us all. They are an '80s teen movie come to life, and they will not stop until the masses are dancing in the streets. If you, like me, dream of a world where they build towering monuments to HEAD and Troegs beer outsells Coors, "Party Town, USA" will be your new personal anthem. Play loud or suffer the consequences!