Friday, December 02, 2022

The Shang Hi Los - "Takes One To Know One"

When we last checked in on The Shang Hi Los, they had just released "Billy," the second teaser for their highly anticipated forthcoming debut album. Originally projected for a 2022 release, Aces Eights & Heartbreaks now has a release date of January 20th — making it the first of many albums I'm excited to hear in 2023. Pre-orders are now live on Rum Bar Records' Bandcamp, and a third single has been released for the occasion. "Takes One To Know One" will actually be the album's leadoff track, and it's another surefire smash from this Boston-based all-star rock and roll band. With Jen D'Angora and Dan Kopko writing and singing songs together, you can certainly expect a debut album inspired by a myriad of musical styles. So far, we've heard elements of everything from glam rock to new wave to garage rock to punk to indie rock to power pop to classic rock and much more running through the songs of The Shang Hi Los. And yet the band's true signature is the way its two songwriters combine their contrasting styles in perfect chemistry with drummer Chuck Ferreira and bassist Lee Harrington. I'm not quite sure how to describe "Takes One To Know One" other than it's awesome and sounds like The Shang Hi Los. It's fun, catchy, and will totally rock your socks off  — exactly the way you want to kick off an album! Joan Hathaway directed a wild and absolutely brilliant music video for the song which you can check out below. Aces Eights & Heartbreaks is going to be a blockbuster. Finally I have a reason to be excited about January!

The Whiffs - "Tired of Romance"

Yes, you read that right: we've got ourselves a new song from The Whiffs for the first time in three years! And it's so good! "Tired of Romance" is the first teaser from Scratch 'N' Sniff, the forthcoming third album from one of Earth's greatest power pop bands. I'm not going to get too deep into reviewing the song today. Suffice it to say that it's The Whiffs at their finest, and Scratch 'N' Sniff jumps to the top of my list of albums I can't wait to hear in 2023. The album will be out on DIG! Records in the USA and Bachelor Records in Europe. Pre-orders for the American edition are open now. Power pop fans, rejoice!

Vista Blue - We Practiced All Year Long

Writing about Vista Blue's annual Christmas releases has become a favorite tradition of mine. It has reached the point where it wouldn't feel like Christmas season without some new Vista Blue songs in the rotation. For Christmas 2022, the band offers us the three-song EP We Practiced All Year Long (paraphrasing a line from a particularly polarizing Christmas classic). Half the fun in hearing a VB Christmas release is discovering the choices the band made in terms of cover material or subject matter for new songs. It's not like these guys are just recording the typical standards year after year. On that note, We Practiced All Year Long is a most satisfying collection. 

Up first, "Santa, Teach Me To Dance" is a cover of what I consider to be one of the best-ever Christmas songs — a 1962 gem of a release from the otherwise unremarkable girl group Debbie and the Darnels. Vista Blue's arrangement is delightful, taking a doo wop influenced pop-punk approach that is right in the band's wheelhouse. Who doesn't love a keyboard solo? I think a lot of people who don't know the original version will be thankful to Vista Blue for pointing them in the direction of an overlooked classic. Your holiday playlist is not complete without "Santa, Teach Me To Dance"! Track 2, "Kmart Christmas 1979," is literally a cover of a Kmart Christmas commercial from 1979. Obviously, this gives me nostalgic goosebumps since I was a '70s kid (although we were more of a Hills family). But it's also a reminder of a time when advertising was so much simpler. A department store could literally run an entire commercial just listing all the cool products it had available for purchase. I was watching the original commercial and admiring the craftmanship and musical professionalism that went into that jingle. In a strange way, Vista Blue's rendition is quite faithful to the original! Who remembers being able to buy records at Kmart? To finish up, "Why Is The Carpet All Wet, Todd?" is an original track the band recorded for a new compilation of songs about Christmas movies. As the title suggests, it's an homage to the Griswolds' villainous yuppie neighbors in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Suffice it to say, if you've never seen the movie, you won't get the song at all. There's a certain genius in revisiting an iconic line from a film and repeating it over and over. That is the genius of Vista Blue. Every year as I watch Christmas Vacation, I find myself impressed how the Margo and Todd scenes derive such idiotic laughs out of scathing social commentary. And now this song is making me laugh idiotically. Well done, gentlemen. Well done! 

Fans of Vista Blue's Christmas music ought to be reminded that Blue Christmas, a limited edition bootleg CD compilation of some of the band's seasonal favorites, has been placed into circulation by the nefarious but goodhearted Tiranasaurus Recs. A parcel from Albania containing this disc recently arrived in my mailbox, and I was pleased to find that Merkush selected some real winners. I especially enjoyed revisiting the Jingle All the Way themed "Nobody Wants Booster," the Home Alone inspired "I Made My Family Disappear," and the band's version of Paul "Fat Daddy" Johnson's Baltimore Christmas classic "Fat Daddy." None of these songs are new, but it's kind of cool to have them on one disc. Since I'm not in the business of sanctioning criminal activity, I'll just say that if you know what you need to do to acquire a copy of Blue Christmas, it will be well worth your effort. "Nobody Wants Booster" has risen to the level of being one of my favorite Vista Blue songs, period. 

Out of consideration for those of you who don't celebrate Christmas, morally object to jollity, or spend your days tormenting your hapless employee Bob Cratchit, I promise to limit myself to exactly four Christmas related reviews this month. I believe I have chosen wisely in granting We Practiced All Year Long one of those limited slots. And you bargain shoppers will like the price!

Thursday, December 01, 2022

The Black Halos - How The Darkness Doubled

For all intents and purposes, How The Darkness Doubled is the true follow-up to The Black Halos' classic 2001 release The Violent Years. Technically there have been a couple albums in between. But How The Darkness Doubled (out now on Stomp Records) finally reunites lead singer Billy Hopeless with original members Rich Jones and Jay Millette — using the album title that was originally planned for a third Black Halos album a couple decades ago. And while it's a music reviewer cliché to talk about "returns to form," there's just no denying that this album is a 100% triumphant return to form. The OG Halos, joined by new members John Kerns (The Age Of Electric) and Danni Action (ACIIDZ), have picked up where they left off 20+ years ago. How The Darkness Doubled is vintage Black Halos in every sense — an ass-kicking set of glam punk rock and roll rippers with hooks for days. 

The passing of time has only added more layers of grit to Billy Hopeless's signature vocal rasp. When that voice intersects with those melodic guitars and Jones' tuneful songs, it's an awesome thing to behold. The band sounds energized and inspired across these 12 tracks  — very few of which fail to get me thrusting my fist in the air and shouting along to the choruses. Few bands can pull off that "rock" side of '70s glam & punk like The Black Halos, and opening cut "A History of Violence" quickly affirms that these guys have still got it. That hook has been lodged in my skull for the past week! Whether you're craving big choruses ("Tenement Kids"), scorching rockers ("Uncommonwealth"), soaring anthems ("Better Days"), or pure punk rock adrenaline ("A Positive Note"), this album has got you covered. With lyrics grounded in life's harsh realities and bitter disappointments, these songs really benefit from the time that has passed since these guys last made a record together. "Better Days" offers solid life advice about never looking back. "All My Friends Are Like Drugs" is insightful and relatable. Originally released as a single two years ago, "Ain't No Good Time to Say Goodbye" is a powerful tribute to the late Chi Pig and one of the most profound songs about grief that you'll ever hear.  

Mixed by Dave Draper (The Wildhearts, The Professionals), How The Darkness Doubled sounds like a million bucks with its huge guitars and slick backing vocals. I'm not saying that I have lo-fi fatigue, but it's kind of nice to hear a punk rock band that's not afraid to rock. And with songs this good, who wouldn't want to sound massive? As the spiritual successor to The Violent Years, this album is everything you hoped for and then some. Longtime fans will not be disappointed. And even if you have never heard the band's first two albums, How The Darkness Doubled will make you want to. At a time when reboots and revivals almost always leave us wanting, The Black Halos are here to remind us that it doesn't have to be that way.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Dany Laj & The Looks - "You Should Know"

Installments in the I-94 Recordings "Detroit covers B-sides" 7" series have been arriving regularly and impressively. Release #7 in the series comes from some great friends to this blog — Dany Laj & The Looks. I'm always excited about new music from Dany and Jeanette. "You Should Know" and "I'm So Glad" are their first new tracks in nearly a year and a half. Back when Ten Easy Pieces came out, I actually thought the Flyers had a Cup-contending team (take whatever time you need to cease laughing). Man, things can sure change in a hurry! But one thing that will never change is being able to rely on Dany Laj & The Looks to deliver the goods. Dany and Jeanette recorded this release with pals Anna and Mike Mernieks-Duffield. That makes this particular iteration of the band a collaboration of two couples, and you can feel that dynamic in the warmth of the title track. 

"You Should Know" is one of the most traditional rock and roll songs that Dany Laj & The Looks have ever done. It's a very simple song, yet it's executed wonderfully. Doo wop and girl group influences are front and center, and I'm also catching serious Buddy Holly vibes. Fine details such as the backing vocals and twangy guitar tone are immediately pleasing to the ear. But ultimately this song works because of its genuine sentiment and timeless melodies. What a catchy tune! It seems redundant to say that this is a terrific little pop song when this band is all about terrific pop songs. But I think you'll understand what I mean. Drop the needle on this track, and you'll be transported to the late '50s or early '60s. For the B-side, the Laj time machine stops off in 1967. The Detroit cover is essentially a cover of a cover. "I'm So Glad" was originally written and recorded by Delta bluesman Skip James in 1931. Detroit's The Scot Richard Case had a regional hit in '67 with a psychedelic rock version of the song. That recording was the inspiration for the B-side of this very record. Laj & The Looks definitely put their own twist on the song. But if I didn't know any better, I would think this track was actually recorded in the late '60s. It sounds that authentic to they heyday of psych rock. I'm usually very, very "meh" about the psych thing, but I can't deny that I'm impressed with this take on "I'm So Glad." It totally rocks, and the musicianship is out of this world. 

Most people have their story about the first fun thing they did when lockdown ended. Dany Laj and Jeanette Dowling hung out with a couple of dear friends and eventually had them come down to make a record in the middle of a May heatwave. And now we can all enjoy the fruits of those sessions! "You Should Know" is available now from the I-94 Recordings web site. As usual with this series, there are many different sleeve variations and vinyl colors to choose from. Quite a few are already sold out, so hop on over to the site and check out the tantalizing options that still remain. And look for Dany Laj & The Looks to be touring everywhere in 2023!

Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Beatersband - VOL​.​TRE


Back with the third installment in a series that began with 2019's VOL UNO, Italian trio The Beatersband delivers eight more fantastic covers of 1950s and '60s pop and rock and roll standards on the newly released VOL​.​TRE. The concept is simple yet so perfectly executed: The Beatersband revisits timeless oldies, adding a modern pop-punk touch but never messing with the essence of the original versions. Half the fun is the band's selection of material, which is once again absolutely impeccable. Donatella, Leonardo, and company always choose the classics of the classics. Yet even though you've heard these songs countless times, The Beatersband re-does them in a way that makes you delighted to hear them again. VOL​.​TRE finds the band tackling the Arthur Alexander/Elvis Presley favorite "Burning Love," the Ronettes' beloved "Be My Baby," Del Shannon's iconic "Runaway," Dusty Springfield's 1963 hit "I Only Want to Be With You" (my favorite song of all-time!), Eddie Cochran's essential rocker "C'mon Everybody," the Wild Ones/Troggs classic "Wild Thing," Conway Twitty's 1958 rock and roll smash "It's Only Make Believe," and Jackie DeShannon's oft-covered masterpiece "When You Walk In The Room." That's an untouchable set of songs, and the success of The Beatersband is in not trying to do too much. What we have here are punched-up yet completely faithful versions of perfect songs. The singing and musicianship are top-notch, and you can feel the love in every note. 

I always love pop-punk bands that acknowledge the roots of the genre, and The Beatersband takes that mission very literally. VOL​.​TRE, like its predecessors, is a true celebration of rock and roll and the timeless songs that have brought joy to several generations. Some listeners will hear these songs and want to seek out the original versions. Others will hear these tunes and have warm recollections of the music they grew up with or were introduced to by their parents or grandparents. It's such a music reviewer cliché to talk about what a marvelous thing rock and roll is, but hearing this album makes me want to shout it from the rooftops anyway. I hope this album series continues for a long time to come! 

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Sino Hearts - Lightening the Darkness

One thing that frustrates me about doing this blog is that there's so much great music coming out that I just don't have the time to properly keep up with. For example, I've been sleeping for months on the latest album from Sino Hearts, which is by far the band's best release yet. So in the way of taking care of some unfinished business on this holiday weekend, I must offer a few words on Lightening the Darkness. I suppose you could call this Sino Hearts' "COVID" album. It was recorded during lockdowns in Beijing from 2020-21. And while the songs aren't necessarily about the pandemic, you can sense the darker feel in the lyrics and even some of the music. Like all of us, songwriter/lead singer Zhong lived through this time when isolation, fear, and an overwhelming sense of restriction took hold. Consequently, Lightening the Darkness is reflective of the times in which it was created. It cuts deeper than previous releases without losing the catchy hooks. 

As the title suggests, this is far from a gloomy album. There's light and dark in these songs, and ultimately Zhong and his band mates don't stray that far from their signature power pop punk style. But on this album, you can hear Sino Hearts broadening their sound and pulling in influences ranging from classic post-punk to modern indie rock. This gives the album a mellower feel at times, yet Zhong's flair for tuneful melodies has never been stronger. This is by far Zhong's best batch of songs. And the production (the album was mixed and mastered in Bergamo, Italy by Bruno Barcella and Riccardo Zamboni) is absolutely spectacular. You could view Lightening the Darkness as a departure from its predecessors, but I prefer to think of it as the album where Sino Hearts fully come into their own. From the modern, melodious strains of "Passing Shades" to the warm power pop of "Stranglehold on My Heart" to the straight-up power pop rock and roll of "Falling Out of Love" to the snappy pop of "Commotion of Love" to the vaguely Weezer-ish "2020," this release is packed with top-notch tunes. I know I'm several months late to the party on this one, but I knew I couldn't start drafting my top albums of 2022 list without placing Lightening the Darkness into consideration. It's still available in the U.S. from Otitis Media Records and in Europe from Topsy Turvy/Soundflat Records.