Three Mid-Atlantic indie/punk lifers walk into a recording studio. No, this is not a setup for a joke. It's the basis for Sal Cannestra's Department of Amusement, a splendid new project/album showcasing one of the most underrated songwriters of recent times and a dream team rhythm section. On vocals and guitar is Sal Cannestra (Sleeper/Serpico, The Gerunds, The Thirteeen). On bass and keyboards is Pete Donnelly of the legendary Figgs. On drums is Mike Yannich of The Ergs! and (literally) countless other bands. With this lineup, you're talking about 90+ years of combined experience in the underground music scene with connections to New York, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. This album may be the most "East Coast" thing ever, and I am here for it! In my mind, I picture these songs playing in every sandwich shop from Delaware County to New Haven.
Like The Thirteen's excellent album LIFT-OFF and the outstanding 2020 solo effort Plenty of Music, Department of Amusement finds Cannestra excelling at his usual stock in trade: rocking melodic tunes with thoughtful and exceptionally clever lyrics. But with the formidable backing of Donnelly and Yannich (who are such powerhouse songwriters themselves that their instrumental prowess is often overlooked), he stretches himself considerably on this somewhat epic long player. The album weighs in at 16 tracks and over an hour of music. Cannestra humorously concedes that this quantity of music is "a LOT to deal with." But as a music lover, I could never understand why anyone would complain about getting more value for their money. It's not like Cannestra is inundating us with filler. I would consider the likes of "Drug Store Readers", "The Easiest Thing," and "Love is Never Lost and Nothing Ever Dies" some of his strongest songs to date. The power ballad "Call It Sleep" will totally break your heart, while "Give the Drummer Some ($$)" is the best Replacements song that anyone has written in a while. When these three veer off from the indie power pop thing, they are more than up to the task. Forays into funky pop ("Blue Heron Drive") and full-blown yacht rock ("Hired Hand") are pleasant surprises. A cover of "Some of Shelly's Blues" is a wonderful tribute to Mike Nesmith, recorded just days after his passing. Album closer "Nothing Is Free" is an old school SST Records style noisy rocker that carries on for over nine minutes — miraculously never wearing out its welcome.
If your commitment issues are making you hesitant to pull the trigger on Sal Cannestra's Department of Amusement, I recommend checking out the music videos for the album's first two singles (I'll even embed them below for your convenience). The clip for "Drug Store Readers" is a lyric video. And I'll just say that lyrics as good as these merit a close inspection! If the song title of "Give the Drummer Some ($$)" doesn't already make the point of the song abundantly clear, the video will erase any doubts. "You're only as good as the one on the throne" are some of the truest words ever sung. If you like what you hear from the singles, I can assure you that the full album is worth both hours of your time and eight dollars of your hard-earned cash. If you had told me some time ago that Sal Cannestra was going to make an album with Pete Donnelly and Mikey Erg, I would have said that was going to be something spectacular. I wouldn't have been wrong!