Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Say hello to Küken!

There are already a great number of albums I'm majorly looking forward to in 2015, and one of them will be the full-length debut from Hamburg, Germany's Küken. You may know Chris and Philipp as the twins from The Kidnappers - one of my favorite bands of the past 10-15 years. Now they've started Küken, which is a clean break from the more recent power pop leanings of The Kidnappers and more of a return to basic smash-you-in-the-face garage punk. If I had to make a Kidnappers comparison, Küken sounds more like the first album and not much like the later two. The band has already released a debut single called "Black Rose", which brings to mind vintage Rip Off Records trash by way of the tougher side of '70s punk rock. As much as I love power pop, it's really cool to hear these boys going back to a leaner, meaner sound. It suits them well, and by no means have they lost their flair for catchy songwriting. They've merely channeled it in a more aggressive way, and "Black Rose" is an essential purchase if you don't own it already. Debut album is coming very soon, and you can catch a preview right here!



Sunday, January 18, 2015

Mystery Date makes an album!

I've been very keen on the St. Paul, Minnesota power pop trio Mystery Date since early last year. And even with my expectations set sky-high, the band's first proper LP has totally blown me away! Not content to just rehash what they already did on their outstanding demo and singles, Mystery Date have attempted an ambitious and thematically coherent debut album. And in every way, they have succeeded in crafting a power pop masterpiece.

I've always thought of Mystery Date as a long-lost British mod revival band from the late '70s that accidentally stepped through a portal to the future and developed a fascination with early 2000s Japanese power pop. So, then, it seems perfectly natural that the group's debut album would be themed around Cold War paranoia, international espionage, and romance under surveillance. With its darker, nuclear era tone, New Noir strikes me as an album that could easily have been made in 1980. Yet it feels all the more poignant given the current state of the world. Musically, it brings together a variety of sources of inspiration. I hear some of Elvis Costello's vocal mannerisms, The Jam's punchy guitars, the Only Ones' tortured romanticism, the Buzzcocks' melodic chord progressions, and First Alert's vibrant modern inflections. Yet overall, Mystery Date have really found their own sound here. Jagged guitars work in perfect unison with a sharp, snappy rhythm section. And Johnny's vocals, full of understated despair, are ideally suited to articulate these tales of forbidden and ill-fated romance. The songs have a way of slowly sneaking up on you - with hooks that require repeated listens before they really sink in. But once they do sink in, it's absolute melodic bliss.

While still operating within the bounds of mod-punk and power pop, Mystery Date have managed to do something genuinely different. I wouldn't call this new wave, but there are major elements of that going on. I wouldn't call this garage, although the minimalist production does fit the bill. I would call this a bold and highly creative work of loud guitar pop. Its vision is cinematic without being pretentious, and its songs will be stuck in your head for weeks. Listening to "Foreign Affairs" or the back-to-back gems "Cosmos" and "Wouldn't You Like To Know", I'm struck by the progression Mystery Date have made in such a short amount of time. Sure, they could have made a debut album that sounded exactly like their singles - and nobody would have complained. But New Noir is a delightful surprise. In its explorations of Cold War romanticism, it has a great deal to say about what it means to live and love in today's society. New Noir kicks off what looks to be another amazing year for albums. Get it from Piñata Records!



Thursday, January 15, 2015

Los Breakdowns do America!

In all my years following music, I can't remember a scene that ever thrilled me more than that wonderful late '90s strain of glam-punk. That was an incredible time to be into glamorous rock n' roll. You had a whole new generation of bands doing power pop and melodic rock by way of the New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders, and Hanoi Rocks. With very little recognition or adulation, bands like the Beat Angels, Trash Brats, D Generation, Teenage Frames, American Heartbreak, and my beloved Dimestore Haloes made some of the most exciting and enduring music of their time. And now, delightfully, the latest album from Los Breakdowns takes me back to those days. 

Los Breakdowns - out of Nottingham, U.K. - have been making excellent power pop and rock n' roll for a decade now. Rock 'N' Roller Skates is the band's third LP - and it's poised for an American release on the fabulous Rum Bar Records early next month. I highly recommend all of this band's previous releases, but Rock 'N' Roller Skates takes things to a whole other level. This is the strongest and best-produced collection of Breakdowns songs to ever see the light of day, and again this band is a tremendous combination of just about everything that's good in pop, punk, and rock n' roll. Cheap Trick and the Ramones remain obvious reference points - along with Hanoi Rocks, the New York Dolls, and glam-pop greats like Candy. From the hard riffs and handclaps of "UK Youth" to the high-spirited pub rock of "Dancehall Disaster", this album is absolutely stacked with smash hits. And given that this record was written over a fairly long period of time, the great variety of song styles is not surprising. From the candy-sweet power pop of "Waiting On Perfection" to the doo-wop balladry of "It's Only Love" to the exultant Ramonesy thump of "Stick 'Em Up Buddy", there's something here for everyone. "Rock City Limit" sounds like a long-lost D Generation anthem, while "Mainline Waiting" is classic glam power pop in a Candy/Beat Angels mold. Lead guitarist Matt Julian is a gifted songwriter and one of the shining stars of a vibrant underground rock n' roll scene in England. If he's the Andy McCoy of the band, Joe Maddox is Los Breakdowns' own Michael Monroe - a charismatic singer perfectly suited to the glammy side of rock n' roll and power pop.

While Los Breakdowns remain largely unheralded in the States, an American release for Rock 'N' Roller Skates could change that in a big way. This is definitely an album that ought to have people mentioning Los Breakdowns alongside all the top garage/power pop/rock n' roll bands of the moment. And it certainly won't hurt that they're now label mates of The Connection and Kurt Baker! Rum Bar Records has quickly become one of my favorite labels, and it's great to see the label looking beyond its New England base and signing one of the finest bands the U.K. has to offer. Rock 'N' Roller Skates has been a fixture in my car CD player since I first popped it in there ten days ago. I imagine your experience will be very much similar to mine. These songs are just so catchy and fun, and it's been a little while since I enjoyed a new album this much. This is glam-punk just the way I remembered it - and it's sounding as timeless as ever.



Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Meet The Spectres!

Who's up for some really good garage stuff?! The Spectres are a two-piece out of Pittsburgh who recently issued a demo you can download for free or purchase on cassette. Sometimes when you hear "demo", you expect garbage fidelity and a lot of songs that might be considered "works in progress". But What Will It Be is not that kind of demo. For a garage release, I'd say this is an album-quality offering. Is it raw? Of course it is. But that's the whole point! And what really sets The Spectres apart is that these two know how to write good, rockin' tunes. With one guy playing guitar and the other playing guitar and drums, this is a duo that actually sounds like a full band! Style-wise, Dan and James recall both classic '60s garage rock and the lo-fi garage punk of a more recent vintage - with some instrumental surf thrown in for good measure. Tracks like "Loving Touch" and "My My My" are high quality blasts of Nuggets/Back From The Grave type action, while "I Want Her So" and "I Know" suggest '90s budget rock with a late '50s/early '60s rock n' roll influence. "I Still Want You" brings to mind a trashed-out Dion and the Belmonts - something really freaking cool in my book! These guys hope to enter a studio in the near future to record some new tunes and perhaps re-record a few songs off this demo. If What Will It Be is any indication, a proper release from The Spectres is definitely something to look forward to in 2015. These fellas do garage rock right! And it's always great to see cool bands representing for my home state!



Tuesday, January 13, 2015

1995 Revisited

These 20-year flashback posts are always a lot of fun, but this one has been especially enjoyable to prepare. 1995 was the year I got my start in the record-reviewing racket. And while my brief "retirement" circa 2008-2011 precludes me from truly saying I've been in the zine/blog game for 20 years, I feel a special nostalgia now that we're exactly two decades removed from 1995.

I came upon the punk world a little differently than the typical person. I grew up on classic rock and metal and did not, as a teen, have much awareness of any music outside of the mainstream. That very much changed in the wake of Nirvana mania, and the latter half of my college years were largely spent in vast explorations of this new and exciting world of indie/alternative/underground music. I read every alt-rock rag I could get my hands on and bought all kinds of new music without any regard for specific sub-genres. Some of it I liked, and a lot of it I didn't. And after a couple years of trial and error, it became obvious to me that the punk stuff was what really spoke to me. So much of what was passing for "alternative" music struck me as a little too high-brow or just simply not my taste. But punk rock was pure simplicity and excitement, and I just loved the way it mixed a primal aggression with catchy songs you could sing along with. I knew this was my music. And while I didn't particularly care for the offerings from the bigger punk labels like Epitaph and Fat Wreck, the underground pop-punk scene and nascent '77 punk revival were so exciting to me that I was inspired to start spreading the gospel via the printed word. These were exciting times to be a fan of punk music. You'd see an ad or a review in Maximumrocknroll, stuff some cash in an envelope, and wait by the mailbox for 2-3 weeks anticipating the arrival of your prize. There was never any guarantee that you were going to love every record you bought, but there was always that thrill in taking chances on bands and labels that were entirely unknown. As I look at my list below of the best punk rock records of 1995, I realize that I had not heard of most of these bands prior to that year. And it should also be noted that many of these bands became longtime favorites of mine. That's what I mean when I say that 1995 was my 1977. 

On to the list!

Top 12 Albums of 1995

12. The Loudmouths - self titled
Straight from the band bio: "In the hell for leather tradition of three-chord sleaze n' roll, The Loudmouths spit out angst-ridden, feline-charged power trash and booze-soaked thrash that taps into the energy of early '80s hardcore and leaves behind a trail of blown ears and broken beer bottles." Yeah, that pretty much sums it up! Two decades later, Dulcinea is still going strong with Midnite Snaxxx!

11. Green Day- Insomniac 
I always liked Green Day and never particularly cared whether they were "punk" or not. My first "big move" in the zine world was to make it clear that I did not side with the punk purists and anti major label zealots who made a sport out of bashing Green Day in the mid-'90s. My favorite Green Day albums are still the first three, but I'd put Insomniac in a dead heat with Nimrod for fourth. 

10. Trash Brats- The Joke's On You
The glam-punk thing was still a few years away from really catching on, but in 1995 the Trash Brats were already longtime fixtures in Detroit's rock n' roll underground. With its perfect marriage of Cheap Trick and the New York Dolls, The Joke's On You was perhaps five years ahead of its time (or maybe 18 years behind it!). Either way, this album is a true classic of its form. If "Downtown Nowhere" doesn't make you happy to be alive, there's probably no hope for you.

9. Riverdales- self titled
Say what you want about old Ben Weasel, but this album is a fine example of what Ramones-core is supposed to be.

8. Electric Frankenstein - The Time Is Now!
Electric Frankenstein was one of the bands most responsible for reviving "old school" punk in the mid-'90s. Released on the heels of several outstanding singles, this monster collection combined the aggressive guitars of Detroit rock and Aussie punk with the snarl and sleaze of bands like the Dead Boys. Over the years a lot of bands would come on the scene with their own blends of hard rock and punk, but nobody did it better than E.F.!

7. The Queers- Move Back Home
If it seems like The Queers put out a great album every year between 1993 and 1996, that's because they did! Absolutely the greatest pop-punk band of the '90s.

6. Boris The Sprinkler - Saucer To Saturn
Still the Boris album I'm most likely to listen to. Fave tracks: "I Wanna Get To Third Base With You" and "Superball Eyes".

5. Motards - Rock Kids
A true classic of down-and-dirty drunken garage punk awesomeness. Then, as now, Austin had it going on.

4. U.S. Bombs- Put Strength In The Final Blow
When I think about '90s punk rock and why it ruled, the Bombs are always one of the first bands to come to mind. They put their own So Cal spin on the classic '77 sound and consistently made great albums. I don't think they fully hit their stride until War Birth, but I do love the pure rawness of this debut LP.

3. The Muffs- Blonder And Blonder
In my personal experience, the debate as to whether the second Muffs album is better than the first Muffs album has led to many shouting matches and late night brawls. I still think the self-titled album is just a little bit better overall than Blonder And Blonder. That said, I will say that side one of Blonder And Blonder is as good as any album side I've ever heard. It still boggles my mind that this album was on a major label at the absolute peak of the alternative rock craze and still couldn't get a lick of radio support. What kind of clueless fucktard actually thought that Jars Of Clay or Dishwalla were more worthy of airplay than The Muffs? No wonder the "music revolution" failed!

2. Oblivians - Soul Food
Without question one of the most important and enduring artifacts of '90s garage punk, Soul Food managed to throw The Stooges, Sonics, and Killed By Death comps into a blender with the traditional sounds of Memphis to create a musical concoction unlike anything the world had ever heard. A masterpiece of wild and trashy rock n' roll.

1. Swingin' Utters - Streets Of San Francisco
The Utters in the mid-'90s were pegged as modern disciples of The Clash and Stiff Little Fingers, and to a certain extent that was true. But they were so much more than that. Their songwriting (largely by guitarist Darius Koski) took some influence from traditional American genres like folk and bluegrass. And lyrically, the band was surprisingly poetic for a group so often pigeonholed as "street" punk. In more recent years, the Utters have more overtly embraced the sounds of Americana. But circa Streets Of San Francisco, they were still incorporating the spirit of those influences into a straight-ahead punk rock sound. Streets Of San Francisco is fiery, passionate, and hands down one of the best punk LPs of the 1990s. 

Honorable mentions:
Beatnik Termites - Taste The Sand 
Gaunt - Yeah, Me Too
Zoinks! - Bad Move Space Cadet
Sicko - Chef Boyrudum

As good as the LPs were in '95, the EPs and singles are what I recall the most fondly. A top ten would be insufficient - so here's 20!

Top 20 Singles/EPs of 1995

20. Moral Crux/Boris The Sprinkler split 7"
19. Hormones- Cartographer Of Love
18. Parasites- Burnt Toast
17. Dead End Cruisers- The Suave The Distant The Gay The Scummy 
16. Connie Dungs- Missy And Johnny
15. The Invalids - Punker Than Me
14. The Queers- Surf Goddess
13. Vindictives- Alarm Clocks
12. Registrators- Monkey
11. Jake and the Stiffs - Spike  
10. Boris The Sprinkler- Drugs and Masturbation
9. Automatics - All The Kids Just Wanna Dance
8. Problematics - Blown Out
7. The Crumbs- I Fell In Love With An Alien Girl 
6. The Rip Offs - Go Away
5. Johnny Bravo- She's Walking Out Again
4. The Beltones - Lock And Load
3. Teengenerate - Out Of Sight
2. Nobodys - Politically Incorrect 
1. The Stitches - 8 x 12

Honorable Mentions:
Teen Idols/Mulligan Stu split 7"
The Rehabs- Here Come The Rehabs
Grieving Eucalyptus- Johnny Made Me Do It

Of course the above lists don't even begin to summarize the wide variety of punk music that came out in 1995. But they do give you an idea of what I was listening to in '95 and why I might have been inspired to start writing about music. I didn't really start getting into garage punk until a couple years later. But when it comes to the '77 and pop-punk stuff on these lists, I pretty much bought all of it when it was new. And if it seems my tastes haven't changed a whole lot in 20 years, I'd say that's very true!


Monday, January 12, 2015

Return of The Ex-Gentlemen!

Having last reviewed The Ex-Gentlemen way back in 2011, I was delighted to discover that this L.A. outfit is still alive and kicking! The band recently issued a new EP called Better Late Than Never - its first new music in four years. And given the significant time between releases, it's no surprise that the group's sound has evolved a little. When I first reported on The Ex-Gentlemen, they were doing a  straight blend of '77 punk and old school power pop that hit me right in my sweet spot. And while I still hear some of the same influences (Cheap Trick, Generation X), this new record leans more in a pure pop direction a la U.K. standouts Role Models. On this excellent five-song effort, the band embraces massive production and melodramatic choruses reminiscent of '80s radio hits. "Bloodshot" kicks things off with some sing-along punky pop that could not be any catchier. It's a great example of how a gifted songwriter can take downer lyrics and somehow craft the feelgood song of the year! And once you get to "Make You Love" and "Brazen Bets", it's clear how far The Ex-Gentlemen have come. I just love those backing vocals and lead guitar hooks! I can't help thinking this is what those late '80s Cheap Trick radio hits should have sounded like. Closing number "All Night" seems a slight tip of the cap to Billy Idol, and that's not a bad way to go at all. I'm impressed that this record is way different than the last one - yet equally good. If commercial power pop were still actually, uh, commercial, these guys would be the hottest thing in SoCal!