Sunday, June 16, 2024

J Prozac - Obsession

The Rum Bar Records Summer of Pop-Punk is in full swing! New albums from J Prozac, The Cretins, and Pavid Vermin dropped this past Friday; the American release of The Yum Yums' Poppin' Up Again and a new EP from Boris the freaking Sprinkler are set for July 5th. Twentysomething me would be geeking out. Present-day me is super-stoked to realize that this sort of music has held up remarkably well when subjected to the test of time. 

If you cut open J Prozac, he would bleed pop-punk. He's a lifer and true believer. His longevity in this genre is a testament to the room he has left himself to grow as songwriter. On his new release Obsession, he continues to balance a deep love for pop-punk as a near-perfect musical form with his personal evolution as a singer, songwriter, family man, and human. Obsession doesn't stray far from the J Prozac signature sound you know and love, but lyrically it goes super deep. In fact, Jay has never gone deeper. This is a pretty dark record that finds Jay confronting a lot of his demons. Many of these songs come from a headspace where darkness is descending upon you and everything around you seems to be falling apart. With tremendous openness and honesty, Jay reflects on struggle and pain and a hopelessness that can consume you if you let it. Ultimately, this collection of songs sees the light at the end of the tunnel without sugar-coating reality. The worst thing you can do when you find yourself in a dark place is to keep it all bottled in and never let anyone know you're struggling. J Prozac, who has put some of his deepest, darkest reflections into song, is an inspiration. He has also proven that you can still write love songs as a proper grown-up if you make sure they cut deeper. A hopeful song like "That Feeling" is all the more powerful because you know it's not bullshit. It's real and raw and straight from the heart. "When That Day Comes" is a Prozac specialty: a heart-on-sleeve anthem that would be unbearably sappy in the hands of most songwriters but is nothing but chills coming from Jay. There are some real curveballs on this record (such as "The Bitter End" and "No One Else"), but overall the vibe here is quasi-mainstream '90s/2000s pop-punk. It sounds a little like the best album Fat Wreck Chords never released. It's more conventionally pop-punk than 2022's Won't Let Go yet still feels like a progression for J Prozac. 

At some point as a pop-punk songwriter, you probably have to let go of an adolescent perspective and get into some heavy adult shit and hope that your audience grows with you. Decades ago, I would have scoffed at the idea of adult-oriented pop-punk. But now I'm hearing the likes of The Young Hasselhoffs and J Prozac, who were real teenagers in the '90s when I was still pretending to be one, making the best records of their lives a quarter-century later, and I don't see any reason for this ride to end as long as we're all still breathing. Vinyl copies of Obsession are super-limited, so get cracking while the cracking's good!  

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Wasted Pretty - self titled

Twins Ginger and Joey formed Wasted Pretty in Marinette, Wisconsin four years ago in response to boredom with pandemic lockdown and online high school. By the summer, they had released their now-classic debut single "Sucks Being Underage" b/w "Don​'​t Care." The pandemic eventually died down, but Ginger and Joey's passion for punk rock did not. After going through more drummers than Spinal Tap, the twins finally found their permanent third piece in current thumper Joe. No longer teenagers, Ginger and Joey have grown their 2020 lockdown project into one of the most exciting young punk rock bands of the present day. They just released their long-awaited debut album, and it's a proverbial breath of fresh air. You don't run into a lot of 20-year-olds who would cite the likes of The Runaways, Stooges, Sex Pistols, and Romeo Void as musical favorites or have named their band after a Figgs song. Yet there's something distinctive about the way a band of this age interprets old school influences. The attitude and energy can be traced back to recordings from decades ago, but Wasted Pretty is putting a modern, fresh twist on the style. Ginger as a lead singer is both the quintessential punk vocalist and a genuine original. Simply put, she's bad-ass. The album was produced by pat mAcdonald, a legendary figure in Wisconsin rock music. Impressively, mAcdonald's production is light-handed and shows a tremendous understanding of the kind of music Wasted Pretty wants to make. He doesn't try and polish away the band's raw edge like so many big-name producers might have. Clocking in at just under 19 minutes, this ten-track album exemplifies teenage (or post-teenage) punk rock. Songs are simple in structure and carried off with tremendous force and enthusiasm. There' s a bit of an Alice in Wonderland theme at play here — another reminder that the twins have an appreciation for the classics. I imagine if you were a tween or teen and heard this record, it would make you want to pick up a guitar or drum sticks and start your own band. And for the rest of us, it's nice to be reminded of why we came to love punk rock in the first place.

Linnea's Garden - "Chaotic Bisexual Summer"

When I heard that Linnea's Garden new single was going to be called "Chaotic Bisexual Summer," I knew the song would be epic. Knowing Linnea Herzog's talents as a songwriter and this band's consistently delightful output, I couldn't help but be a little excited. And sure enough, "Chaotic Bisexual Summer" is a summertime smash. The song, in its author's own words, is "a celebration of pride, visibility, and finding home within yourself by living an authentic life." Musically it's vintage Linnea's Garden — poppy, indie/punk-ish, and danceable but not limited by the boundaries of genre. The song was inspired by Linnea's first girlfriend and subsequent coming out experience ten years ago and what that set in motion in terms of personal growth. Lyrically, this is some of Linnea's most extraordinary work (the first verse alone is hall of fame worthy!). This song is full of vivid, memorable reflections, and any human with a heart can relate to the journey towards finding love as your true self. "Chaotic Bisexual Summer" is a serious song, but it's a fun one too. There's a joyfulness to the way this song is performed that really fits its lyrical themes. One of Linnea's greatest gifts as a songwriter is the ability to write from an autobiographical perspective and still create something that's universally relatable. This may be the first time I've ever seen a band quote Albert Camus in liner notes, but it 100% makes sense in the context of the song. I would urge you to read the quote and listen to the song and make your own connections. If you've got a summer playlist, "Chaotic Bisexual Summer" needs to be on it! 

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Golden Richards - "Doctor K"

I'm always delighted by the arrival of new music from Chicago-based power pop rockers Golden Richards. In my book, any Golden Richards single is a hit single. "Doctor K," the band's new single, is full of '80s summertime power pop vibes — but with quite the twist! Doctor K was the name Gil Golden used when he recorded a locally popular rap track back in his high school days. This song tells the story of a young man who runs into an ex-girlfriend and believes he can win her back if she learns that he is the rapper Doctor K. That's a pretty amazing concept for a song, and "Doctor K" is everything you would expect from a Golden Richards tune. If you've ever pined for a lost love and fantasized about becoming so incredibly successful that they'd have to come back to you, you'll really be feeling this song. This is kind of like The Great Gatsby except more fun and far less tragic. The hooks are super-sized, and Billy really pours his heart into the vocal. What girl could possibly say no to Doctor K? The surprise (which is now no longer a surprise since I'm telling you about it) is that "Doctor K" turns out to essentially be three songs in one and concludes with an old school rap a la Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow. The rap is pretty hilarious and manages to reference everything from Bewitched to Three's Company to the Rolling Stones. I have no idea what the original Doctor K track sounded like, but it's hard to believe it could have been any better than this! This is legit good! "Jump on the Doctor K cloud/He ain't no GP, he's specialty now" just might be the lyric of the year! "Doctor K" is something a little different from Golden Richards — a veritable power pop rap opera! In a perfect world, all the cars in the Friendly's parking lot would be cranking it! 

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Hayley and the Crushers - "Alleyways"

Back with their second single from their forthcoming EP Unsubscribe from the Underground, Hayley and the Crushers are really hitting me where I feel it. Hayley Cain wrote "Alleyways" as a remembrance of her favorite teenage hangout spot and the local punk rock scene that meant everything to her. So many of us have cherished memories of being part of a punk rock community and basking in the freedom, excitement, and pure fun that came with it. With "Alleyways," the Crushers manage to capture that spirit in song. I sensed on the last single "Unsubscribe" that this band has really gotten back to its punk rock roots, and that feeling goes double for "Alleyways." The song is snappy & high-spirited while also having that wistful touch you'd expect when you're reflecting on memories that are now a couple decades old. Above all else, this song taps into the fundamental joy of punk rock as a way of life. This joy is palpable in the playing and the singing, and it comes through in the music video as well. Hayley and Dr. Cain have really done a remarkable job of growing their sound while still holding on to those qualities that make their band so special. And of course this new lineup is hot! I've got a feeling that fans are gonna go absolutely wild for "Alleyways"! Instantly, it becomes one of my favorite Crushers songs ever. If you have precious memories of DIY punk shows and the friends & connections you made there, you'll be feeling this song too. The full EP will be out in September on Kitten Robot Records! 

Monday, June 10, 2024

Rich Ragany - You Can Get Dark with Me

I know this is around the 20th time that I have championed the songwriting talents of Mr. Rich Ragany, but I have to say that ole Rags has truly outdone himself with his new album You Can Get Dark with Me (out this Friday on Barrel And Squidger Records). In the aftermath of What We Do (To Not Let Go), his arena-sized swan song with his band The Digressions, Rags wanted to go in a more intimate direction with his next release. But rather than simply going the typical homemade "unplugged" route, Rags had a more interesting idea: he would "deconstruct to reconstruct." He recorded all these songs at home on the very day they were written. The tracks were later fleshed out in the studio with producer Andy Brook and the Digressions' rhythm section of Simon Maxwell and Ricky McGuire. Rags also traveled back to his hometown of Calgary to work on a few tracks with his pal Russ Broom. Notably, the final mixes of these tracks still include Rags' original homemade recordings. The whole point of this approach was to capture the spur-of-the-moment solitary inspiration of the songs while also highlighting how they blossomed into something even better. Sometimes songwriters try and simplify things. Other times, they try and stretch themselves. Here Rags has done both, creating songs that sound meticulously-crafted without losing their direct, personal feel. You might guess that all those guitars were overdubbed in the studio. Nope, that's actually Rags in his bathroom with an acoustic guitar. I kid you not!

Music reviewers (myself included...ha ha) are sometimes full of it when they hail every favorite artist's new release as their best yet. But there's no way I can't say You Can Get Dark with Me is the best album Rich Ragany has ever put his name on. He has been on quite a run over the past decade, releasing three albums with The Role Models, three with The Digressions, and now his proper solo debut. All of these previous records were excellent and among the best long players of their year. But Rags has never delivered a more powerful or consistent collection of songs than the one he will drop on Friday. You Can Get Dark with Me contains 10 songs, and every single one of them would have been a standout track on any of Rags' previous releases. To call this album "filler-free" is an understatement. What stands out to me is how seamless Rags' growth as a songwriter has been — building off his roots in punk rock and power pop yet very quickly transcending genre. It's very hard to put a label on You Can Get Dark with Me because it simply sounds like Rich Ragany. And who says we need to label music? Rags put his soul into these songs. His voice, his flair for melody, his knack for anthemic hooks, and his relatability as a songwriter are the stuff of a genuine original. And after three decades plus of slugging it out in the world of rock 'n' roll, he's just now hitting his creative peak. I promise to call him out if his next record sounds like Warrant, but something tells me I won't have to worry about that. 

Of course the album title is worthy of mention. It was inspired by something Scott Sorry said to Rags, and it speaks to what so many of these songs are truly about. When it comes to friendship (or any kind of close relationship), some of our most meaningful interactions stem from hard times. We support our friends when they struggle, and we use our strength to lift them up. Other times our friends do this for us. Sometimes this leads to dark conversations, but those dark conversations can be lifelines for us or the people we love. The people willing to get dark with you are the people you need in your life. It goes without saying that You Can Get Dark with Me gets a little dark, but it's dark in a way that's honest and intimate and invigorating for the soul. Rags has a way of writing about topics such as trauma, addiction, grief, alienation, and self-doubt as if he's talking directly to a friend. If you don't know him, you'll feel like you do after you listen to this album. Surely that's one of the marks of a great songwriter. Singling out individual tracks is a difficult task on an album as strong as this one. That said, "You Can Get Dark with Me" is a powerful ballad worthy of its inspired title. "Sierra Bonita," redolent of '80s new wave and post-punk, meets every possible definition of an anthem. "Tragic Celebration" is deeply-moving and inspiring — and quite possibly the best song Rags has ever written. "Worth," which passionately justifies all the struggles, sacrifices, trials, and tribulations that go into a life of a musician, puts an emphatic end mark on an extraordinary album.  

Due to the way it as created, You Can Get Dark with Me is a very unique album. It does come off as more intimate and personal than What We Do (To Not Let Go), yet it's no less anthemic. It's a great album to listen to while you're taking a long walk or sitting alone on the porch reflecting on the meaning of life. These songs will hit deep in your soul, but they'll also make you want to pump your fist, sing along, jubilantly dance in public, and relish feeling alive. Now four paragraphs deep into this piece, I'm surely preaching to the choir if I proclaim Rich Ragany one of the best songwriters out there. But if you do need some convincing, You Can Get Dark with Me is the album to listen to. Order it here!

Sunday, June 09, 2024

Lesser Creatures - Entertainment System

On their new album Entertainment System, Lesser Creatures continue to be an exception to the rule that I'm totally over "snotty" pop-punk. Nick Spoon and his new bandmates Tyler Adams and Lilly Koloski take me back to the mid-'90s when DIY pop-punk was exploding and you had all these bands who obviously loved Screeching Weasel but were still really rad because they were young, scrappy, and enthusiastic. It was a super-fun time to be into music, and I fondly recall combing the pages of fanzines in search of new pop-punk bands to check out. Thirty years later, Lesser Creatures recapture the spirit of that scene. On Entertainment System, Lesser Creatures totally lean into their '90s pop-punk influences. They're not trying to break new ground, and they're not going to try and change your mind if this type of music isn't your thing. But if want to hear tried-and-true pop-punk that's catchy as heck and played with tremendous enthusiasm, this is the album for you. Nick Spoon may sound like you took Ben Weasel, Joey Vindictive, and B.A. from Sloppy Seconds and tossed them in a blender, yet his approach doesn't come as affected or overly labored. I think that's just what he sounds like, and I have to admit I kind of love his vocals! As a songwriter, he adds his own clever, creative, and often humorous lyrical flair to this familiar musical style, and what results are songs that are genuinely fun to listen to. With this version of Lesser Creatures, we have three true believers in pop-punk. And we need true believers in music just as much as we need innovators. If you ever played your cassette copy of My Brain Hurts daily for months or lived for the moment when that Mutant Pop Records envelope showed up in your mailbox, Entertainment System will be music to your ears.