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Thought Beneath Film - Detours

Thought Beneath Film

Detours

Self Released
By

Rating: 3.5/5

 
 

 

 

One of the great claims of punk is that beauty thrives in the grit. Sounds that can make hungover mornings and lonely nights a little prettier are among the best the genre can produce. Such is the mission of groups like Thought Beneath Film, whose debut EP posits a type of melodic grunge poised to substantiate the genre’s lofty promises.

While powered by the heavy beats and electric licks of more glamorous forebears, Thought Beneath Film wears literary references on its sleeves. It’s hard to avoid the pretentiousness that permeates the album, but the fact that the music is so damn fun serves as its saving grace. And there are so many worse things than a pop album that embraces erudition in the name of pop. Titles like “Hearts on Overdrive” are a bit much (come to think of it, so is “Thought Beneath Film”) but despite Detours being a first album it listens like people absolutely confident in what they’re doing.

With five tracks Detours doesn’t have much time to waste, and the loose bits in “False Skin” and “Maybe I’m A Chump” detract from the powerful structure present in the rest of the album. “Hearts on Overdrive” matches the early work of Michael Angelakos or Sleigh Bells. The involvement of Bob Ludwig’s mastering shows throughout, and the album has an efficient but dirty sound. The departures from that are its weakest moments. Otherwise the album is electrifying.

This year’s release by Vancouver’s Anchoress pulled a similar trick to what helps set Thought Beneath Film apart, imbuing a heavily emotional style with an intellectual sensibility that leaves an album greater than the sum of its parts. Taken alone a smattering of references to mid-nineteenth century poets isn’t much, and pop punk at its best is merely fun. But combined in the interesting, challenging and rewarding way that Thought Beneath Film chose has left us with Detours, one of the sleeper hits of the year.

The Stanfields - Death and Taxes

The Stanfields

Death & Taxes

Groundswell Music
By

Rating: 3/5

 
 

 

 

Part of the stated intent of The Stanfields’ second album, Death & Taxes, is to “be more frank about it” when it comes to the values of social justice and workers’ rights they’ve been talking about since bursting onto the scene in 2008. That they have certainly accomplished on their more serious sophomore offering.There’s a lot going on in this album, not always to a successful end, but with a depth and breadth of ideas not often come by on a work of Death & Taxes length.

The album opens with “Jack of All Trades,” a dark and direct commentary on working-class struggles to make ends meet. Drawing on imagery from modern-day and 20th-century labor struggles the band’s politics come together to a tune drawing heavily on Irish Bostonian style. Next, “Run on the Banks” conjures a war veteran whose son was murdered at home, and the band’s ideas begin to layer. There are a lot of references to look up in this album, a lot of history playing out in the service of a 21st-century Canadian punk zeitgeist.

Yet even the best and most serious moments on the album suffer from translation issues: A piece ostensibly set in 1775 sung with a John Mellencamp Midwestern-boy vocabulary is the most egregious, though “The Boston States” survives as one of the album’s strongest on its production value. The eponymous track is one of the best tunes, but its attempt to say something about the Hagakure of the modern fiscal psychopath doesn’t quite build to anything.

Many of the tracks on Death & Taxes suffer from the distance between the intelligent things The Stanfields have to say and their insistence on projecting the country vibe. As such, while tunes about gangsters and poverty stick due to the band’s talent in composing a piece the lyricism can come off hokey and, at times, irrelevant.

One of the maintenance costs of the “working-class punk” label seems to be a self-imposed moratorium on the polysyllabic when it comes to narrating a story from a day-laborer frame of mind. The Boston crowd does this, the Alberta crowd does this, and The Stanfields are doing it. Much of this album would be strengthened by an understanding that an uneducated person is not necessarily a yokel.

At its best this album has as grim and gritty a story about labor and poverty in the modern era as anything in your Lagwagon or Rise Against collection, tonally different but in the same rhetorical vein. The Stanfields’ tunes ring with the stronger Irish operators on the scene today. It is at times nakedly self-conscious about its roots and less than subtle in its attempt to appeal to a certain audience. Those are times that future records can do without.

Silent Descent - Mind Games

Silent Descent

Mind Games

JVC Records
By

Rating: 4/5

 
 

 

 

Having carved itself a niche as the best trance-metal band on the scene today Silent Descent can be forgiven for indulging an emblematically operatic style. Fans of 2008’s Duplicity will feel right at home, even if they’d been hoping for perhaps a step outside the group’s comfort zone. A revolutionary departure it is not, but it succeeds on its own terms: Silent Descent’s Mind Games is in many ways the fulfillment of a genre, an expansive blend of genres that make for perfect partners.

The stirring deathstep “Overture” at the beginning of the album lays out the style of the remaining tracks. Landing with steady, driving beats each track uses a trance structure to visit familiar metal motifs. This simple dichotomy doesn’t quite cut it, but there’s too much going on in this work to try to cover it all: Flashes of pop, death metal, dubstep and rock make appearances, mostly on the early tracks before Mind Games settles into its rhythm.

Much of Mind Games, minus the intermittent surfacing of strong backing vocals was presaged by 2008’s Duplicity and as such this album can in some places be accused of merely rehashing an old formula. Deviations from that formula are ambitious plunges into uncharted territory, with tracks “On That Trip” and “Psychotic Euphoric” brilliantly assembling rock, trance and death metal into ballads greater than the sum of their parts, though the most indulgent “Call Me When You Get There” is one degree too hokey in its synth choices. The formula plays out in more straightforward fashion elsewhere, with early tracks “Bricks” and “Coke Stars” passing largely unnoticed.

Devoid’s” relentlessly overwrought narration is carefully metered by the well-conceived and fully developed trance progression undergirding much of the album and, with its simultaneously silly and spooky use of the sound of choking is the album’s most challenging track. Contrary to the common expectations of the metal genre Silent Descent works much more in major chords and steady beats, an alchemical blend of the soul of metal and the science of trance.

Unlike their first album, where lead vocalist Tom Watling’s voice suffered for lack of support (I would describe “Bleed in Trust” as an extended belch) production efforts have produced an inarguably superior layering that sustain an album mere seconds away from earning overlong status. The lyrics are more or less par for the course, and the album lags on tracks like “Wipe Your Chin And Walk Away” when the instrumentation steps back for their benefit.

Few bands have treaded this particular ground, but many genre-blenders have run into the problem of where to go next. Now that Silent Descent has produced two works thoroughly in this vein one wonders what will prevent a predictable third album of the type. By incorporating so many styles to a minor degree throughout the album they have given themselves plenty of places to go, though I suspect their work to date is going to stay in demand for awhile yet.

The Sidekicks - Awkward Breeds

The Sidekicks

Awkward Breeds

Red Scare Industries
By

Rating: 3.5/5

 
 

 

 

I’ll never be able to scrub MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular from my mind entirely, and I suspect I’m not that album’s only permanent victim. As such the boldness of The Sidekicks’ Awkward Breeds, which begins with a sound clip similar to that of “Kids,” can’t be overstated. This is a gem of a sophomore-with-honors album such as Red Scare is becoming known for, and a powerful showing for a band carving out miles of new territory.

DMT” introduces a string of pop-punk victories held together by steady, driving beats that, say what one will of the early-90s infrastructure, have just as much in common with the kind of rich, playful rock sound that took echo the Black Keys’ strongest early moments. Aside from that the two groups are of different lyrical species and most of this album is rumination on mortality and mildly allegorical renderings of girl problems that call on a mid-career Say Anything.

The brakes come down in the delicate “1940s Jet Fighter,” that pouts like Brand New at their most pop, before settling into a strong rhythm that crescendos back to the heights akin to the album’s best, “Incandescent Days.” The recurrent use of the sounds of children doesn’t show up often enough to establish a strong theme to the album, but its tonal cohesion gives it strength beyond its subject matter.

Rumor has it this band has been performing together since high school and each track’s careful unity is emblematic of this bond. Singer Steve Ciolek’s style puts him in a context leading from Smoking Popesback to Weezer, with a focus on subject matter plainly referential to the latter but often wholly of its own, assembled with a straight rock sensibility that is the album’s lasting impact. “1940’s Fighter Jet” and ”Looker” both push Ciolek’s voice slightly beyond the register it was meant to inhabit, but on neither track does Sidekicks lose focus of its core strengths.

Awkward Breeds is anything but. It’s a strong, confident offering in a strain of punk that has  done very well over the past couple of years and has reinvigorated a genre often populated by pop bands going punk, not vice versa. The Sidekicks have laid the foundations of an exciting concept and with a little studio time could produce the next Giant Orange.

Second to Last - Vessel

Second to Last

Vessel

Hella Mad Records
By

Rating: 2.5/5

 
 

 

 

Just over a year after its first release, Second to Last’s next EP release Vessel touches on themes familiar to the band in their crisp, efficient style. The result is a pleasant confessional work that pushes no boundaries but will satisfy fans of other, bigger releases of the genre this year so far.

Though the subject matter and developed, multi-stage progressions provide an emo sensibility to their sound Second to Last is fundamentally pop, and the vocal interplay between vocalists Tyson Evans and Pat Mays put it under the Taking Back Sunday and Midtown umbrella. Sadly, their ideas don’t quite add up – “Cheap Sleep” and much of “Turmoil” seem spent casting aspersions on a world “content with vices” despite the band’s erstwhile concern with girls and “blowing mad trees.” The album shines best on “Feels the Same,” a eulogy for an era that gave birth to the kind of mid-nineties punk to which Second to Last best compares.

The measured and effective guitar-bass weaving would be par for the course for a band with a little more of a discography behind them and rank as impressive on a group that is, at least on paper, younger than one may expect from their sound. While EPs are commonly regarded as conceptual playgrounds Second to Last jams this one full of ideas, possibly inviting the question of why they haven’t yet released a lengthier, fuller work.

So far the group’s work has been self-serious and intense, as contrasted with its forebears who at least make passing reference to the lighter fare of the teenage years. Perhaps it’s because we live in a time when punk no longer holds claim to the skateboard, or perhaps Second to Last simply has bigger things on their minds than partying, but for a group that so strongly conjures mid-life Blink 182 and TBS, the lighter half of the emotional spectrum is almost wholly absent from their lexicon thus far. Ultimately it’s clear this group is poised to release a better-developed, more balanced full-length album sometime in the future.

The Vessel EP accomplishes a lot in not a lot of time, a promising sign if ever there was one for the new school of old-school punk.

Yellowcard -Southern Air

Yellowcard

Southern Air

Hopeless Records
By

Rating: 4/5

 
 

 

 

Yellowcard‘s 2011 When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes was a double serving of acoustic and pop punk that put the band in a position it hadn’t seen since Ocean Avenue. Suffice to say they’re in no need of a mainstream revival. Their latest, Southern Air, is a better album in almost every way, as good as the band has ever been, and a new take on a signature style meant for the band’s new, bigger audience.

Opening with the dark, thoughtful “Awakening” this album’s tracks contain broader range than any of Yellowcard’s earlier work. In its most primordial Where We Stand-era state each tune off a Yellowcard album broke down neatly into, essentially, “about a girl, sad” and “about a girl, happy.” The depth and breadth of the group’s subject matter has grown steadily fromthere. “Awakening” is an achievement in subtle self-criticism Yellowcard had not made before, and “The Surface of the Sun” is just as good, and catchier.

Somehow Yellowcard still manages to tell stories about discovering the beach and “the best summer ever.” As this album represents a merging of their original stylistic ambitions with the expectations of modern pop-punk, its reliance on the themes and imagery prominent among its earliest albums reintroduce the band to a potential new audience. While the opening track portends a darker, heavier album – and in many ways it is – as much of it is spent on the summer as on the melodic and foreboding bass work.

Critiques of the band’s style under the leadership of Ryan Key have focused on how damn hard it is to write a pop song that is both heavy on the strings and worth its own emotional weight. Most of this album’s richly textured song-craft is immune to this accusation, but not all. “Rivertown Blues,” laying on thick the lines about closing ones’ eyes and falling, smells of self-indulgence. “Ten” opens with a genuinely haunting tune, but its deathly serious tale wears itself out by the third refrain.

Yellowcard has an impressive stage presence and those more dramatic tracks will play pitch-perfect in a live setting but lack the same emotional resonance in digital. From its inception Yellowcard could never be accused of under-producing an album, and their relationship with their label pays off on this crispest of works. No track outstays its welcome by so much as a second – which is good, when some are another beat of pop-orchestral away from overwrought.

The eponymous closing track makes the end of the album feel abrupt, and one does not surface from it gently. As with tourmates Saves The Day, the band’s style is enjoying a comeback and a reintroduction to the mainstream. If Yellowcard keeps producing work like this it will pay off in the surge so many lost bands of the early millennium tried and died for.

Rob Johson - Throw The Sun into the Sea

Rob Johson

Throw The Sun Into The Sea

Self Released
By

Rating: 3/5

 
 

 

 

Instrumental, progressive rock has established itself as an important subset of alternative music, and rightly so. The ability of loners with laptops to challenge the perception that lyrics are necessary components of music wholly embodies the punk ethos. On his latest album, Throw The Sun Into The SeaRob Johnson takes the versatility of his home genre and builds genuinely new sounds, with mixed results.

To the extent that Johnson lets his tracks run wild he creates as dark, vivid and narrative music as Pelican or Mogwai have created in years of group effort (Indeed the kernels of the sublime that appear throughout this album could serve as a lesson to Pelican, which has managed to produce its three most recent albums without including a single new sound). Unfortunately this sensibility is a rare find on this album, and almost every track gets stunted in its development about halfway through and never rebuilds. As fun as they sound, pieces that can  be described as “country synth” like opener “The Wasp And The Flame,” with at-times forced blends of traditional rock and digital instruments, prevent the music from ever really getting its footing.

A genre that prides itself on mood has produced an album in a deeply unsteady emotional state, and on much of The Sea, the variety for variety’s sake damages more than it enhances. The insistence on sneaking synth into “Hurricane” and “Into The Sea” at precisely the wrong times is as jarring as groups like Isis’ insistence on ruining a perfectly good instrumental album with screamed lyrics.

For lack of a revolution in orchestral depth such as this, I keep waiting for instrumental prog to produce the best tracks on the album emerge as the ones where Johnson can keep a theme together throughout and give it its full due, regardless the piece’s expansive imagery. This happens on subdued tracks like “The Real” and “Monsters,” which bear a closer resemblance to the compositions of Alexander Brandonthan to the big instrumental performers to which this work alludes elsewhere. There are rumblings of Mogwai throughout, but the longest streaks of coherent, quality sounds would be as at home accompanying a video game character or creature in a sci-fi short. Indeed, with song titles like “EVE,” this may be his very intent…

In a total of about twenty seconds on the entire album Johnson is having as much naked digital fun as groups like Annamanguchi thrive on; elsewhere, the fun is a hokey digital wind instrument-acoustic guitar combination that leads one to wonder when exactly Johnson is fucking around and when he’s genuinely made a misstep, a feeling that haunts his album. Overall Throw the Sun will leave genre fans wanting more of most of Johnson’s sounds, less of some of it, and, at last, an idea of what he’s trying to say.

   
Red Collar - Welcome Home

Red Collar

Welcome Home

Tiny Engines Records
By

Rating: 3.5/5

 
 

 

 

Two albums into his latest project, Jason Kutchma of Red Collar has built his young group an outsized following that made the online stream of Welcome Home a major event among this season’s releases. Welcome Home is generally a match for its audience, occasionally straining to meet its lyrical ambitions while providing a strong, thoughtful collection that round out the album’s titular theme.

Orphanage” sets the tone for the album with the kind of bare-bones, guitar-driven hooks that with the help of a generous production effort provide refreshing complexity to a style characterized by other releases this year as simple and undeveloped. Its Southern influence nests it firmly in the hierarchy of this year’sLucero and Hot Water Music releases, and blends in surprisingly well with those other cheerfully sentimental works.

Its weaker tracks are relentlessly narrative while lacking captivating lyricism, with one too many undeveloped stories about ‘small-town life’ to prevent the natural tendency for eye-rolling such fare can induce. I’ll admit as I listened I misplaced the group as being from Jersey, as the thinner tracks like “Old Piano Roll” and “Two Daughters” listen like a poor-man’s Gaslight Anthem.

Elsewhere the focus is on the bigger picture, and as the album pulls back to explore Kutchma’s ideas about the eternal “never going home” concept it becomes more rich melodically and compelling lyrically. “Fade Into The Night” and “This House” will be the album’s longest-lasting tracks and are the biggest breakthroughs for the band’s sound. Elsewhere overwrought backups detract from soulful guitar work, as part of the delicate balancing act between insincere and maudlin Red Collar’s style must practice.

The album’s final and titular track brings home themes explored across the album, providing a sense of closure to an album whose biggest and best ideas seemed to demand irresolution as augured by the slow, almost reluctant fades of many of the previous tracks. These are quibbles metaphysical with a great album that exceeds expectations and raises the bar for Red Collar. The formula repeated across this album’s tracks will work just fine for future works, but hopefully with an established reputation with a producer that gives them room for more ambitious instrumentation and experimentation Red Collar can become great.

Placeholder - Nothing is Pure

Placeholder

Nothing Is Pure

Better Days Records
By

Rating: 2.5/5

 
 

 

 

Changing a band’s name from Coastal to Placeholder reads like a move in pursuit of perennial obscurity, and changing a band’s name from anything to Placeholder reads like a “fuck off!” to anyone listening, and anyone who may have been in some future danger of listening. The bigger fuck-off that Placeholder has been able to pull off, however, comes in the form of releasing a successful album that is not just emo, but old-school emo (isn’t it weird being so old that there’s now such thing as “old-school emo?”) of a species that evolved into the rock-ey and rocky form we know today.

Vocalist Brandon Gepfer’s voice is right at home in the genre, and dynamic enough to meet the demands of Placeholder’s ambitious goals. While they seem comfortable styling themselves as a harkening back to the early days of emo – a placard from Nothing is Pure’s label Better Days proudly proclaims them as such – that isn’t quite right, and more latter-day, hardcore incarnations of the style appear throughout, especially on early tracks like “Give Up.”

Unfortunately, Nothing is Pure simply doesn’t have enough to recommend it to begin heralding the return of the genre. The bulk of the album runs together and leans too heavily on Gepfer’s voice to take the music to places the rapid-fire style can’t go in terms of range and depth. The two best tracks, “Nothing is Pure” and “Only Ever After,” bookend the album and are purely twenty-first century creations, purely unlike the work Placeholder is interested in referencing. Elsewhere, the attempt to conjure Jimmy Eat World and the like is largely successful, but only insofar as the most perfectly average sound from that band’s early work comes through. This album has been positively characterized as “old-school;” a harsher but no less accurate caricature would be “heard before.”

The heavy instrumentation gives the band a quality beyond its age (even given its numerous incarnations), but its lyric-craft does not achieve the same effect. This album has a lot of “rain falling on her hair,” a lot of “being under pressure,” a lot of “I want to kill myself!” that twenty years into the genre are too tired to serve as even passable lines. No one can take away teenager’s right to throw him- or herself around the room screaming along to songs about suicide, but fans old enough to have experienced the numerous rises and falls of hardcore emotional may have a hard time avoiding rolling their eyes as we hear yet again about how “What I hate is what you love.”

The contradiction of a style based on raw emotional bloodletting is what happens decades after the first wound is opened.  Placeholder is a talented, exciting band from a school of musical thought that, at its inception, prided itself on not aging well.

Pedals On Our Pirate Ships - A Place To Stay

Pedals On Our Pirate Ships

A Place To Stay

Say-10 Records
By

Rating: 4/5

 
 

 

 

The superbly-acronymed Pedals On Our Pirate Ships want you to know they’re reluctant to grow up, but they’re settling anyway. Eschewing the banjo and harmonica for a traditional punk setup plus synth,Pedals On Our Pirate Ships has landed in a place better suited to their vocal style than previous releases. They’ve also created their most energetic and interesting music yet, on an album easily matching any midlevel folk punk release this year.

To say the band is proud to hail from Richmond doesn’t quite capture it, but for Pedals its fellow bands’ fleeing the city makes an apt metaphor for growing pains on opening track “Livin’ the Dream.” There,Pedals confronts one of the big lies of our youth: that a new city solves all problems. There is an essentialism to every Pedals track, that everyone lives with inescapable flaws. That theme gets wrung out pretty thoroughly in the course of this album, but its heights of story-telling, particularly “Side by Side” and “A Light at the End of a Tunnel,” prevent it from going stale.

While those stories are standard fare for the genre, drinking and lonely nights and other incarnations of young American’s fatalism, the band’s vivid lyricism leave no question as to its sincerity. “Knives” features jarringly apt descriptions of friends trapped in Amway scams, and anyone who knows the jarring feeling of going to work the day after a funeral will feel it again on “Tom’s Song.”

A simple, harmonizing keyboard plays a major role in developing the album’s sound, imposing a kind of seriousness on Place to Stay its simple guitar chords may have been unable to pull off on their own. Similar releases like this year’s Mixtapes falter on this point, and this simple addition to a standard setup prevents some more self-indulgent tracks from running off the trails.

With Fake Problems poetic sensibility and an ax to grind with growing up like Andrew Jackson Jihad, A Place to Stay is the album the angsty DIY punks have been waiting out the year for. With a greater level of focus and more interesting stories to tell than than last year’s CollectionPedals has come into its own and pulled something rather the opposite of a sophomore slump. Whether Richmond’s punk scene is ripe for revival is uncertain, but with bands like these it can only be well on its way.

No Such Noise! - Life Goes On

No Such Noise!

Life Goes On

Self Released
By

Rating: 3.5/5

 
 

 

 

Ska is dead: Long live ska. The bafflingly moribund outlook critics hold of ska seems more based on its go-to idioms of silliness and innocence, of ‘mere fun’ that at face value seem incapable of sustaining a genre than its actual track record of producing excellent and exciting music. It’s time to admit ska is here to stay, and, if groups like No Such Noise! can continue to produce EPs like Life Goes On all on their own, deservedly so.

It isn’t until the chorus of the opening track one even realizes they’re listening to a ska album – this length may sound trite, but on this five-track piece that’s about ten percent of the way through the album – and first the listener takes a dose of strong, well-produced pop punk that gives the sudden introduction of the lilting guitar licks definitive of ska a heightened gravity. Groups are rarely in the habit of exiting the style, but No Such Noise! has a vocalist whose talents would be at home in any more traditional rock style, a standout feature given the reliance of some startup bands on the brass section to prop up sound density.No Such Noise! has no such problem.

This pop punk sensibility carries much of the album, which stars a track featuring a conveniently rhyme-friendly cognomen in “Lexi Walker” that could be accused of cheap trickery but for it’s catchy tune is pushed by strong vocals. No Such Noise!’s work is produced well above its pay scale, and the crisp tunes have strong undergirding in songcraft that other bands take several years on a label to develop.

Life Goes On doesn’t progress with ideal smoothness, and the first half the album is plainly superior to the second. “West Chester,” the final track riddled with commentary on a region of New York whose east-coast-Orange-County (mid-Atlantic-Darien?) reputation may be lost on anyone who has never  visited the area, largely ranks as forgettable compared to the energetic joy that permeates “Two Years and 25 Cents” and “Lexi Walker.” While the pop ethos that informs this album’s underlying structure is a strength that allows each track to develop in ways not usually afforded ska tunes, it hampers the final pair of songs from reaching the temperature that gives the rest of Life Goes On such staying power.

Though the album goes with a whimper, the initial bang proves this group’s talent is sustainable beyond its single “Renaissance Man.” Its inclusion of the pop style and its occasionally heavier-than-usual lyrics gives it lots of potential ground to tread on forthcoming efforts, which hopefully this time will be accompanied by a label that will give No Such Noise! the attention they deserve.

Moving Mountains - New Light

Moving Mountains

New Light

Triple Crown Records
By

Rating: 3/5

 
 

 

 

Now well into a galaxy-wide, summer-long tour, Moving Mountains’ EP release of New Light seems a counterintuitive decision. Usually, the order is slightly different: big release, tour, EP. Additionally, said EP is usually little more than a smattering of b-sides that couldn’t make the cut on the album itself. New Light is not only new ground for the band, but is a significant stylistic departure from its biggest offering yet, Waves.

Moving Mountains has produced a sufficient depth and breadth of work that it’s be about time their fans start getting pissed off at the band’s progress, and I suspect this EP is just the spark as this isn’t just a short form of Waves. It is both a wiser and more practical sound, poppier in every way, with the same crisp production values, without the electronic gimmicks. Gregory Dunn’s vocals need no great assistance in the booth, but some of the more ambitious range found on old tracks like “Where Two Bodies Lie” has been replaced by a smoother subtlety hardcore finds may find off-putting. The capacity to incense strangers is the mark of a band becoming successful, so this should not be taken as a criticism.

My criticism would be that much of the sound weaving through New Light has been trodden before by bigger bands, who were willing to wring their vocalist through more painful twists and turns to fill out what is, here, a collection of tracks that each feel a bit light in the middle. Where there is greater tonal sophistication on this offering than any of their earlier EPs, too much of the listening experience is spent waiting for the tune to go somewhere, largely to no avail. This is a wildly overwrought criticism of four tracks, but each of the four could be leaner, meaner things such as Moving Mountains and its forebears are known for.

By my reckoning Moving Mountains’ present course bears favorable resemblance to an early Mogwai and even to an early Murder By Death’s minstralism before they took their dark turn through their spaghetti Western loops. Moving Mountains has a vocalist with wide enough range to take the band wherever they choose to go, and if their ramped-up touring schedule is a sign of albums to come this EP lays the groundwork for big new things from a genre desperately in need of precisely that. Old-school progressive emo in a way unlike other, grittier releases of the genre this year, Moving Mountains fits right in with tourmates Coheed in Cambria, and fans of the more fantastical, classical offshoots under that umbrella will warmly welcome a new addition to their libraries.

Money In The Banana Stand - Giant Steps II

Money In The Banana Stand

Giant Steps II

Garth's Party Warehouse
By

Rating: 1.5/5

 
 

 

 

By referencing the criminally underviewed Emmy magnet-cum hipster folklore Arrested Development, front-loading their first album with pun-tacular song titles and lyrics and naming their second effort as a sequel but by a different name,Money in the Banana Stand’s sophomore Giant Steps II arrives with certain expectations. With so much silliness packed into the group’s physical product, what could the album’s sounds be but brooding, self-conscious, angry and, quite possibly, dead serious?

This school of nomenclature – the pop culture-aphasic song titles, the tween-buzzphrase imputations that confine a band to the brief moment in cultural time from which its references sprang – briefly took over post-millennial punk’s DIY scene, arriving at the same time as the tech-driven, self-made universe of starter bands that could launch an album with little need to ever leave the confines of home.

A decade onward the results are in full-bloom in MITBS’ second effort: a crisp, well-produced collection of incomplete teenage angst. Beneath his group’s slapstick surface singer Joel Young is dead serious about parties, insecurities and other terribly important things. This incongruity is in my view a devastating weakness of this approach: there can be little patience for self-importance in a band whose tales of youthful troubles are bookended by Arrested Development and Justin Bieber.

The urgency of the vocals to sporadically overload song lines’ syllable counts both pumps up the energy of an album that can’t rely on its guitars and tears the songs apart, making tracks like “Political Song For Justin Bieber To Sing” and “Lately”  play more like the sort of overcaffeinated diary ranting Young mocks on that latter track. The lilting, contemplative opening to the album’s single sticks with you, but is the exception to a scat-staccato lyrical style that rarely plays out elsewhere.

Each track seethes with the same rhetorical self-consciousness Tom Gabel and Kevin Gunther were eventually able to spin into powerful songcraft, and there are the makings of an interesting band that yet lacks an original sound. Given their website’s proclamation that it’s probably “never coming soon” and the dearth of technical progress since their first album MIBS seems unlikely to reach this point.

MIBS may be destined to the frayed edges of this generation’s punk tapestry, wound up in a style that both demands shallow revelry and haughty pretentions, deep commentary on irrelevant white peoples’ problems that fail to inspire in quite the same way as its namesake.

Mixtapes - Even on Our Worst Nights

Mixtapes

Even on the Worst Nights

No Sleep Records
By

Rating: 2/5

 
 

 

 

With a half-dozen separate releases under its belt in half as many years, Mixtapes would probably dispute the definition of “full-length” usually prescribed to the class of albums under which its latest, Even on the Worst Nights, would fall. While it is the group’s lengthiest offering to date, Mixtapes has a lot to say about how the brevity and originality of an artist’s corpus forms the core of its value. Unfortunately given those self-imposed measures of success Even on the Worst Nights falls short. Between the repetitive, overwrought sentimentality and the worn commentary on “the mainstream,” Even on the Worst Nights is a crudely-assembled collage of well-trodden folk punk concepts.

Mixtapes core is two vocalists whose styles simultaneously wax Bowling for Soup and Defiance, Ohio over a sound more the former with lyricism more the latter. One can easily imagine how difficult those styles are to reconcile. Indeed, this album’s difficulties stem from a failed attempt to merge the pop approach with the folk ethos, resulting in a final product less than the sum of its parts. As a folk-punk pastiche Even on the Worst Nights hits every chord-counting cliché associated with which its style can be associated, rendered disingenuous by its forced marriage to the very style it criticizes.

You&I” is the album’s most genuine and effective track, with a haunting refrain that communicates a real distance from the urbane dark side of the rural-Ohio act’s Manichean construction of today’s punk scene. But rarely elsewhere does this album wade beyond knee-deep. Even on the Worst Nights is so many saccharine eulogies to the good old days awkwardly crammed onto the same album as celebrations of leaving home “in the rearview mirror.” “You&I” and the unselfconscious, full-bore pop of “I’ll Give You A Hint, Yes” succeed by transcending the rest of the album’s moralizing, which never fails to ram home its point to exasperating completion.

Half the tracks are boilerplate pop-punk and the other half assails the pop-punk ethos with ofteneye-rolling verve. In aggregate this album is too many disingenuous little rebellions against a style dutifully employed throughout, too few acts of genuine cruelty on a work meant to plant a flag against “the big city kids,” the punk mainstream that goes thump in the night.

Lacking the boldness of similar act Ghost Mice’s full-on fantastical lyricism while banking on sentimentality played out with more energy and creativity elsewhere, Mixtapes’ Even on the Worst Nights has insufficient originality to offer for an album overloaded with criticism of other peoples’ music. Coincidentally, its best asset is that it has just enough pop-tastic construction to please precisely the type of listener to whom Even on the Worst Nights wishes a fond fuck-you at every turn.

Mean Jeans - On Mars

Mean Jeans

On Mars

Dirtnap Records
By

Rating: 3.5/5

 
 

 

 

Much noise is made in comparing Mean Jeans’ bouncy, party-punk sound to the Ramones, whose musical style shines through on each of this album’s relentlessly silly tracks. But the comparison is wholly unnecessary: the Mean Jeans have their own sound and aesthetic, and the value of the album is missed by trying to contextualizing it to a band whose lyrical depth Mean Jeans isn’t interested in capturing, and comparing it to a sound against which Mean Jeans is decidedly the more upbeat and poppy of the two.

There’s something in Mean Jeans’ joyfulness that bands like the Ramones went to great pains to suppress. Underneath their silliness were feelings of loneliness and paranoia, bounce-happy tunes and imagery from latchkey childhood interwoven with pessimism. The Mean Jeans hit “kinda shitty” at best (and when they do, hairs stand on end amid the almost wholly PG album, minus subject matter). The descriptor “party band” that most critiques of their work eventually get to captures much of this band’s distance from its acoustic forbearers.

It took a few listens to realize this band has as much in common with a young Aquabats or They Might Be Giants as they do with the early New York punk scene. A consequence of the relentless cheerfulness of the album is that at times – like the tragedy mom forgets to make lunch on “Lunch Victim,” the Sisyphean silliness that “Hangin’ Tuff” captures in the struggle against adulthood – it’s hard to avoid feeling at least a little silly when you hear yourself murmuring these catchy tunes later. When you’re feeling like shit The Ramones are right there with you – Mean Jeans wants you to grow a pair and come have some shots.

The contrast is lopsidedly in favor of the kids’ stuff, but the occasional shining through of lines about Jagermeister, blacking out and getting high save the album from lyrical irrelevance and reminds the listener that these guys are grownups who pine for a simpler time, not children struggling to hang on. And their videos are masterpieces: In the video tied to the album’s single and handily best song, “Anybody Out There?”the band-mates take bong rips from spaceship wiring,  breathe through an oversized Jagermeister handle in their spacesuits and disintegrate aliens for daring to not know what the word “party” means.

Mean Jeans stands on its own as an exciting, hard-rocking group (and after a recent Fake Problems kick, I’ve been desperate for a band that actually enjoys getting shitfaced) and much of its substance is missed by getting hung up on its similarities to early New York punk. Given their aesthetic they’ve got something much bigger than that scene’s ideas in mind, and we should all be eager to see where they go next.

Manfish - What Is This Manfish?

Manfish

What Is Manfish?

Self Released
By

Rating: 2/5

 
 

 

 

I had a hard time placing Manfish as I listened to their debut What is this Manfish? Their name references a largely forgotten piece of pop culture silliness. Their sound slides around, from the rawest raw of early Misfits to strangely composed electric tunes of the kind that bookend punk, with hard rock on the one end, and post-punk on the other. Given the album’s cobbled-together punk sensibilities its Finnish – you know, the Nightwish country – roots may come as a surprise. Forgive the preconceived notions, but this album’s lack of a moment of symphonic death metal may come as a surprise.

It takes about ten minutes for that surprise to dissipate. No American, British or Canadian group could so unabashedly reference foundational punk groups. Whether it takes a cultural ignorance of the sanctity in which this genre’s acolytes hold its deities, or a boldness to which other punks aspire, to lift wholesale from the founding years I cannot say. I know not the minds of Finnish punks.

To call this a bad album seems unfair to similarly brave and fun-loving groups from years ago who played with similarly uncoordinated grit. To call it a decent album would not only stretch the definition of that term but disregard the fact that the album only sounds good when it’s reminding the listener of territory carved out years ago. The value of this album is in the promise it makes in the aggressively old-school opening track, “die hippie die,” that of a silly album by fun-loving kids.

On much of the album this jolliness descends into outright amateurishness that punctures the layer of fun that makes What is this Manfish? bearable. “Why everything is so gay” fails to make its point and ineffectively blends arrhythmic lyricism poorly constructed guitar riffs. At the end of the album, “I hate you” takes like a prank played on the listener, the final challenge for an audience that has voluntarily submitted itself to the rest of the album.

Manfish has a good backup singer and instrumentalists who know what they’re doing, so I doubt this is the last we’ve heard of them. Some studio time may do them some good. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

   
Lyon Estates - Come Mille Altre Volte

Lyon Estates

Come Mille Altre Volte

Goodwill Records
By

Rating: 3/5

 
 

 

 

There is often a certain kitsch involved with outsider interpretations of a familiar style. It’s kitsch recognized in the peculiarly American insistence that death metal is intrinsically improved by rendering it in a Scandinavian language. It’s the conceit that when a style born in one place moves to another, that new version is at best a quaint imitation, the equal opposite of Disneyland verité. Bologna, Italy’s Lyon Estatesaffords no such notions: It is a hardcore punk band with the energy and fury of any of the best young hardcore groups operating in the mid-Atlantic or Ontario today, indistinguishable from its peers but for the language in which it screams.

Northern Italy’s punk scene is about as old as America’s, of course, but Raw Power this group is not. Despite the Back to the Future reference of its name Lyon Estates has little in common with other  Emilia-Romagna groups of the style. Akin to this year’s Facing Forward or early Verse releases, each track is a lissome drumbeat wrapped around the heaving cries of the mononymous vocalists. Launching from a slightly overlong intro, “Nel Mare Che Affonda” sets the tempo and pace from which the rest of the album rarely strays.

And no, there will be no translations. I daresay that misses the point.

The flip side of a successful album of this genre is a certain lack of stylistic ambition, and to an extent this five-track sophomore effort is twenty minutes without a surprise. While each track, particularly the rich and melodic “Cosa Rimane” and “Nel Suo Tempo,” receives a full treatment, the scale and scope of the album feels limited. The interesting choices made at the very outset of the album give way to what is a generally average hardcore album. While lacking the playfulness of first album Tutto o niente, the tradeoff in the direction of grit mostly pays off, but sacrifices some of the spirit that could potentially set this group apart.

Having made their way all over southern Europe with Attrito earlier this year, and with dates in the UK coming up soon, it’s about time this group secured a United States release. Whether they’ve fully nailed down their persona as silly or sinister I can’t say. That they’re one of the next important hardcore bands on that scene, I can. They haven’t yet released enough work to give them a full treatment as a band, butLyon Estates has proven they have the chops to show up at any basement and tear it to pieces.

Lucero - Women and Work

Lucero

Women and Work

ATO Records
By

Rating: 2.5/5

 
 

 

 

Rising occasionally to the manly forlornness that species of early rock found in dives and diners punk historians like Jon Savage call the beginning of American punk, Lucero’s Women & Work is nothing if not a feel-good throwback. Overall it is, indeed, nothing but this: fun tunes built on solid foundations with instrumental backing as broad as deep, ultimately lacking substance, each track seventy to eighty seconds too long, with the subject matter blending together into a sort of black and white pastiche of a time in rock ‘n roll that has ended.

The album’s upshot is best embodied in the album’s titular Women & Work, a big, dancey thing that requires both an organ and a piano, brass and snapping entreaties to “let it go! Let it go!” as a narrator entreats his ward to do in regards to (what else?) women, giddin’ drunk and livin’ life. It’s the same kind of fun Chuck Berry once had, and that similarly-whimsical bands like The Gaslight Anthem are just one degree too mean in their east-coast grunginess to replicate with the same precision.

With metaphors involving being “shocked to the bone” by a woman weighing down the occasional punch-through to emotional strength that try to save this album from mere Country, the faintly misogynist extirpation on sex wear a little thin before the album’s through. Those “ghosts down those empty roads/they all know my name” are invisible in the presence of several lines too many about boys being “swept off their feet” by girls “with kisses like lightning.” At the center of the thoroughly under-wrought tales of love and loss is a narrator waxing paternal to a naïve young friend, a friend who should probably be at the helm of each song’s stories. It may be hard for a band of Lucero’s venerable verve to unlearn its perspective, but it would probably help prop up some of Women & Work’s ho-hum subject matter.

Even in fourteen years of music making it would be wrong to say Lucero has lost its edge. It hasn’t. Women & Work has an energy many east-coast bands of an otherwise similar stripe are unwilling to express. That energy – and, with it, the expectation that a band that labels itself as “punk/country” will work as hard at the former as the latter – seems to beg more development of the message and the story. Fans ofThat Much Further West and Dreaming in America probably know where Lucero is going with this one. Many of them will probably be wondering how they aren’t past there yet.

The Lillingtons - The Backchannel Broadcast

The Lillingtons

The Backchannel Broadcast [re-release]

Panic Button / Red Scare Industries
By

Rating: 3/5

 
 

 

 

There have been understandably energetic efforts to reintroduce The Lillingtons to the world. Their energy set them apart in early-2000s punk. Each track on the re-released Backchannel Broadcast has appeared in the ether at least once before, whether on Lookout! records, a Red Scare re-release, or a 2005 box set largely consisting of live tracks. Despite the historically plausible argument that The Lillingtons broke ground that Cobra Skulls and Rise Against discovered at best concurrently, they’ve been in dire need of an audience. The Red Scare Industries re-release is the next shot at that goal.

In some ways, their relentless obscurity makes sense. The Backchannel Broadcast was their best effort to date but, with its kitschy espionage theme may have been a bit much for a fanbase informed largely byThe Ramones and Screeching Weasel (different subsets of kitsch entirely). Some of the album’s technical decisions confuse what may have been a serious message – the out-of-place echoes on “Mind Control”-themed lines, the flimsy narration of “Wrecking Ball” – that could’ve said something important about COINTELPRO and other aspects of America’s international ‘intelligence-gathering’ later picked up on by the likes of Propaghandi and Rise Against.

Given the band’s background it’s reasonable to assert a straight political album wasn’t their intent, but the gravity put into the album’s driving chords and references to actual espionage history speak more to an unclear message rather than a lack of one.

The best tunes on the album, “Santa Fe-O” and “Mind Control” have desert sound and strong rhythms that match Cobra Skulls in their prime. Elsewhere “Badman With The Devil’s Hand” attempts the same strength without quite making it, and some tracks are propped up by six-shooter spaghetti tales that, while fun, are no Murder By Death. Indeed, on “One Armed Man” it is advised that “I’m gonna draw my gun,” so “you better run,” and the tracks with this sort of playful yet ho-hum machismo leave little impression. This tonal shift backloads the album and weakens the opening tracks’ strong focus on the world of the intelligencer.

Given the success of fraternal groups like Teenage Bottlerocket and the separate ways other members of the Lillingtons have taken, and given that some of their most interesting ideas have been taken over by more protest-oriented bands, it’s hard to be optimistic this group will soon be putting in additional effort to develop their style. Perhaps the interests of the on and off-again bandmates signal those interests are simply no longer around. That would be a shame, because despite some questionable choices on the album, they were really onto something.

Hounds and Harlots - The Good Fight

Hounds & Harlots

The Good Fight

Blackhole Records
By

Rating: 3.5/5

 
 

 

 

Hounds and Harlots debut full-length The Good Fight opens with a turn from the angry. A cheery pop lick stops abruptly to make way for gritty vocals that, throughout the album, have a penchant for reminiscence. The Good Fight is a San Francisco love letter to foggy city streets on the east coast, and a noisy, drunken hail to the Boston and New York punk scenes that, in Hounds and Harlots’ view, should not go quietly into that good night.

Despite the fun pop structure of each track on The Good Fight, the subject matter is irretrievably disconsolate, starting at a closed punk club in “Bloodline’s” opening lament, reaching as far back as the Paris Commune of 1848 midway through on “Coming For You,” and then back to today just in time for a final fuck-you to the big bands of today on “You’re Out.” “Stand Up,” the acoustic-dominated protest anthem at the apex of the album’s political full-throttling, is a touch too shallow for the rest of the album – “Stand up!” punctuates too many “me/me” rhymes– and while the band functions as a pitch-perfect pop outfit, it is at its Dropkick Murphian best on the harder tracks like “Bloodline” and “Coming For You.”

All of Hounds and Harlots agitating is done in the city’s dockside alehouses, and every track conjures foggy city streets and clanking glasses in a way rarely achieved by groups that inject so much pop composition into their punk. The combination makes for some remarkably crisp tracks – in some places, almost a half-dozen tonal shifts are crammed into a three-minute span.

Whether this sound is cultural runoff from Hounds and Harlots’ coastal milieu or a genuine attempt to style themselves as pop-hardcore is too early to tell. The final track, “Lot to Learn,” embodies this question with a razor-sharp bass lick that swings away to give hardcore the floor, and is the album’s most interesting track.

Inevitably the album is simultaneously light and dark in ways that prevent it from being a total triumph in either direction and the rhetoric just barely survives initial listening, coming into its own after multiple run-throughs. Merely okay lyricism is a dangerous conceit even on a well-crafted album like this one, when it’s meant to conjure the kind of barroom shows that demand more of a spectacle. Nonetheless this young band is growing up spectacularly and with the backing of the right label could foment a new scene on the West coast.

Hot Water Music - Exister

Hot Water Music

Exister

Rise Records
By

Rating: 3/5

 
 

 

 

Punk rock has been fortunate for the tumultuous careers that collectively comprise Hot Water Music. Part of the late-90s class that made Gainesville, Florida the capital of gritty folk punk, HWM’s influence is matched only by its ethereal quality: It disappears, sliding over and under the current, reappearing in new and fleeting forms, a breeze ruffling the plicate face of punk. Its first full release in four years is an act of reformation, a return to its most recognizable form that puts the band back where it once was, gaining no new ground, but making up for a lot of lost time.

Indeed, much of the album’s imagery is concerned with redemption and salvation, with tracks like “Pledge Wore Thin” and “Boy, You’re Gonna Hurt Someone” hymns to the band’s relentless perspicacity which, while only occasional manifesting as HWM, has spawned enough side movements to make one wonder how this album could lack the visions of its individual members.  Chuck Ragan is indisputably more talented than this album leads one to believe. Chris Wollard’s (who has worked with Bad Religion, The Gaslight Anthem, and with part of the lesser-known hardcore act Gunmoll) powerfully catchy chords never quite come into their own, and George Rebelo (a sometime member of Against Me! among others) merely blends amicably with the album’s semi-funk, semi-pop feel.

Other works between this album, the 2008 Till the Wheels Fall Off b-sides and The New What Next show a more ambitious band, one that has spread its roots across the genre. The swift rise and disappearance of California Burritos was a The ‘Tone-sized tragedy of short-lived punk groups, and the energy captured in that little moment is here lacking.

The album’s eponymous “Exister” is one of its strongest, Ragan roaring about the common threads that unite the stories of “another time, another place” that fill the album. Though it has the quiet, understated desperation as good as any Gaslight Anthem piece, Hot Water Music’s legendary lead singer presents unfulfilling poetry unmatched with vocal verve sufficient to carry its tunes.

The band’s sound is rendered with richness and depth by Rise Records, and the upcoming release of a live album on No Idea may signify a permanent change to that label. Live albums are useful as technical outs on recording contracts, and while No Idea has done them good (and will, doubtless, continue to support their side projects) a new set of producers may give HWM space to spread out its repertoire. Given this album’s similarities to its previous work – there are few higher compliments for a folk punk album than “kind of like old Hot Water Music” – such a change may be a blessing to the band.

With an announced live album Hot Water Music may finally be signaling intent to stay in one place for awhile. It can no longer be the place it has held until now, but if Ragan can carve out a more ambitious work with Rise, a group this strong and dynamic cannot fail.

Happy Old McWeasel - No Offence

Happy Ol' McWeasel

No Offence

Self Released
By

Rating: 4/5

 
 

 

 

No Offence is the latest release by one of the best Boston-Irish drinking bands out there today except that, you guessed it, they’re Slovenian. Consisting largely of traditional drinking songs as well as a few originals – the best work on the album, actually – No Offence is a curiosity indeed; a Dubliner salmagundi of tracks about booze, liberty and the sea from these Balkan boozers’ pitch-perfect pastiche.

Their take on “Drunken Sailer” and the like is accomplished through lengthy scat on each tune’s basic melody, that bookends what would otherwise be merely good tracks with material that must be positively fissionable for live audiences. Given the cadence of these tracks, paced for whiskey-drenched vocal chords and frontal lobes, there is virtually no opportunity to discern that this group is making an elaborate homage to something wholly other. Yet knowing this fact is important on some level: it explains the eponymous track’s odd lyrical choices, justifies the project’s relative simplicity and, above all, is kind of mind-blowing.

Some of those lengthy breakdowns provide insight into the group’s homeland influences, where drummer Ale Voglar slinks into a death metal-staccato beat that can only be an homage to that region’s thriving scene. Otherwise Flogging Molly and Robert Burns rank as the most outstanding references.

Make no mistake: This is an Irish drinking band that just happens not to be Irish. Their style is as frenetic yet reverent of working-class ire as any Southie outfit that makes their living doing the same thing – plus their original content. “Hairy Grizzly” winds up being the best track on the album with a relentlessly catchy punk lick, followed by “No Offence” itself. On a ten-album track relatively undeveloped tracks like“Sail Away” just cost time, but elsewhere the relentless polish shows talent beyond a sophomore band.

It’s reasonable to wonder just how many more punk versions of “Danny Boy” the world is in need of, and in this case it goes without saying that originality is not this group’s main focus, even considering the effort taken to wrap the reduxes in pizzazz. Despite their continued ability to evade attention in America Happy Ol’ McWeasal seems to be checking off boxes, earning cred in this school as it continues to gain prominence. Flogging Molly just had a tour date in Ljubljana, where doubtless McWeasal fans were in attendance. Let’s hope sometime soon the Slovenians return us the favor.

failsafe

Failsafe

Routines

Cardboard Empire Records
By

Rating: 3/5

 
 

 

 

Few options remain for bands like the U.K.’s Failsafe to distinguish themselves from the herd of post-punk bands seeking to reinvigorate a style that had been in decline for much of the 21st century. Failsafedoes not achieve this goal with its interesting stylistic choices, which end up sadly lacking in follow-through, but they do provide a solid offering that will bring them a comfortable following in the American post-punk mainstream, oxymoron though that phrase may be.

As this album follows the successful “lots of shiny sound, all the time” formula that guided mainstream punk well into the 21st century it takes a few listens to realize just how much the production accomplishes for this work. Whether by design of the band-mates themselves or producer Dave Eringa, a common acoustic theme unites a broad variety of sounds, letting Routines present poetic anthems like “Something to Someone” to rawer, instrument-driven tracks like the appropriately named “Skin and Bones.” Lyrically much of Routines blends together – perhaps intentionally reusing and reusing the themes and imagery from “Routines” to center the album, or not – but by carrying those themes through love, childhood and the scene each song has its own value acoustically.

Unfortunately the album’s big promise, made by the “Persistence of Memory” opening track’s reference to the Salvador Dali work and subsequent use of a timepiece sound, falls flat. Perhaps a reference to a painting involving melting clocks combined with an unchanging, relentlessly un-melted tick-tock sound reveals the band bit off more than it could chew by appropriating a defining work of the 20th century, but over-ambition is a hard conceit to excuse.

We catch a glimpse of it later in the album, on the haunting instrumental rustling at the end of “Something to Someone,” but beautiful though it is it feels more like a tribute to some of the other imagery on the album – to that of times of day, not to the passage of time itself, themes that don’t quite add up coherently across the album. One must always have trepidation of rock albums that dare start with the ringing of clocks, and a relentless effort at making a theme must not be confused with a successful effort at so doing.

Much can be said for the school of poppy British post-hardcore that gave rise to Failsafe, but vociferous promotion is not one of its strong suits. It’s a minor marvel of non-strategic thinking that has allowedFailsafe to remain as largely unknown in the U.S. punk scene as it has. We can’t blame the band’s constant small-time U.K. label-hopping –Yeah Yeah Yeahs, anyone?  Nor can we blame the band’s isolated productions – The ‘Tone, anyone?! – and they’ve been touring for a decade. I suspect the time Failsafe has had avoiding the limelight is soon to run out.

Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds - I'd Rather Die Than Live Forever

Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds

I'd Rather Die Than Live Forever

Red Scare Industries
By

Rating: 3.5/5

 
 

 

 

The effects of children and middle-age on the hard-rocking psyche are among the great curiosities of punk. In 2012, men with sagging earlobes and burst capillaries listlessly patrol the malls and Disneyland. They shush teenagers in movie theaters and bend wide arcs on the sidewalk to avoid skateboarders. Enter Brendan Kelly, angry old man of punk.

His new album – solo with accompaniment? Soloesque? – opens with the cheerfully cruel “Suffer the Children, Come Unto Me,” in which a flattering line directed at a girl in a bar quickly gives way to dark and perverted introspection on the learned heartlessness of sexual predation. Not the illegal kind – criminals of that kind become the target of the narrator’s wrath elsewhere on the album – rather, the kind inspired by too many nights in the dens of iniquity that set the stage for several of the album’s spine-tingling tracks.

The misanthropy that permeates the I’d Rather Die Than Live Forever is a refreshingly brutal narration of the kind of life other artists are often, perhaps out of a sense of self-preservation, tempted to render with sterile romanticism. Undergirding the subject matter is a rock sensibility conventional by self-dubbed “conceptual album” standards that makes the contrast all the more powerful. The epithet at the end of “Suffer the Children” and the build-up to the drop of “Dance of the Doomed” are as poignant musical moments as Kelly has ever taken part in.

Where the offense fails and gives way to introspection the song-craft is a little thinner, and tracks like “Ramblin’ Revisited” are largely wasted opportunities, opportunities really only available on conceptual albums put together by soloist offshoots from already-popular groups. (In punk this is a surprisingly sizeable population) Elsewhere, tracks like “American Vagina” partially impress by demonstrating Kelly’s unflinching command of his voice, without really taking off. The bold exposition that permeates “Dance of the Doomed” and “Latenightelasticbags” has elements of Tom Waits’ grungy sexuality that, if Kellycan get a band and enough studio time for more than one album every three years, will put him in the annals of the genre.

After the final chorus of “Covered in Flies” the album ends with a whimper in “The Thud And The Echo,” in which the piece’s main character seems to apologize for what was just heard. However the song seems largely unsuitable for touring and, given that this is Kelly’s stated vehicle for the album its likely that its best songs will land solidly in the punk lore, reassuring its listeners and Kelly’s growing legion of fans that he is at the helm of punk’s next chapter.

Ben Olson - With Nothing Framed

Ben Olson

With Nothing Framed

Manatees and Jack-O-Lanterns Records
By

Rating: 4/5

 
 

 

 

Somewhere between Chuck Ragan and Waylon Jennings lies Ben Olson, frontman of a traditional blues outfit wrung through all the whiskey in the world, dragged across Canada and the United States a half-dozen times in half as many years, rendered something all its own. In the spirit of last year’s Like A Steady Heartbeat follows With Nothing Framed, an album attributed to Ben Olson alone and not one of his several start-up outfits. With a bad attitude and a mandolin, Olson continues to push the boundaries of punk, incorporating folk and field-holler in as exciting and successful an album as he has ever made.

While Olson’s formidable vocal character is best likened to a young Ben Nichols, his work captures the liveliness of the more traditional Memphis blues scene in a way few acts like his can match. Tracks like “Hard Working People” and “Overdue Deadlines” embody the saccharine ennui of the blues as well as any Southern alternative release of this year. With Nothing Framed is darker than typical folk, livelier than typical alt, the ideal vehicle for Olson’s ideas and vocal caliber.

The album’s philosophical bent can be likened to a young Murder by Death, with many tracks dwelling on a kind of country-alt medley of ideas about work and family, rendered gritty by Olson‘s soothing seething. His roots obligate him to accomplish as much as he can without cursing or cruelty, and this pushes songwriters like Olson to imbue tracks with necessary gravitas absent four-letter exclamation points that may have been useful here and there. This is a blues conceit, and Olson‘s fealty in that regard pays off in his gaslight poetry.

There are places where a verse could’ve stood another take, where the beat seems to have been momentarily lost, and, as with his previous work, Olson can’t be accused of relying on post to prop up his sound. His approach to music isn’t as well-suited to straight folk homages, and tracks like “Farmer’s Fields” do little for the album other than provide a sense of tonal balance. At fifteen tracks this is a comparatively meaty release for the genre, and each track fits into the bigger picture of a release meant to be listened to as an album.

First-time listeners to Ben Olson – and surely this album will create many of those – will be surprised by an ever-advancing army of instruments that show up on With Nothing Framed. Between this album and the previous, his sound is gradually solidifying; though I suspect he’ll traverse weirder plains before he settles. He’s lassoed three or four genres into one so far, and no reason to stop is presenting itself. Beyond the boundaries of numerous styles this album is nothing framed indeed – it is pure, unadorned talent.

Aspiga / Hanalei

Aspiga / Hanalei

Split

Jumpstart Records
By

Rating: 2.5/5

 
 

 

 

Of the two groups contributing to Jump Start Records’ new Aspiga/Hanalei Split, Aspiga contributes both better tracks and more progress on the band’s sound. In presentation and production, the group is deeply Jersey; upgraded by sounds peeking into a higher registry in a tradition generally associated with the Midwest and other mid-Atlantic states, a possible nod to the recording time they’ve spent in Philly. Of their stated influences only Desaparecidos really seems to capture this interesting harmonic choice – I’d try to compare them favorably to The Weakerthans, but I seem to be the world’s only punk fan who would do so for anyone, and I don’t want to start any fights.

Kevin Day is the kind of vocalist who needs a strong guitarist to survive, and at times his smooth but short-range voice is wrung out by the demands of the band’s tonal choices. Each attempt to deviate from his strengths of loud and high or soft and medium is unsuccessful, both here and elsewhere in their work. At the risk of inciting further violence, the best moments of these two tracks call the Brooklyn scene to mind – is it okay for a Jersey band to be “kind of like Palomar” if it requires comparing them to be mentioned in the same breath as Palomar? Are those fighting words where they’re from?

Hanalei is harder to place. Compared to the advances Aspiga makes Hanalei hasn’t done themselves any special favors by contributing to this release. As the older band they must have more spare tracks and unsung songs to spare, and for many such groups split albums are where that work ends up. This is no exception. The imagery on “Get Gone” begins with that of a man watching, with gravity of course, the behavior of mice. Lyrical depth fails to develop from there. By simply trailing off on both counts Hanalei makes it clear these are both tracks that may once have merited serious attention, but no longer.

Both bands have clear internal logic for releasing the split – Aspiga has a vinyl re-release coming out, and Hanalei can treat One Big Night fans to a couple of bonus tracks with a similar sound, even as it comes time to get another album together – and neither has failed to provide something of value to their fans. This album however is no exception from the norm for the kind of split contribution made by both an upcoming and an established group.

Ape Up! - Kemosabe

Ape Up!

Kemosabe

Count Your Lucky Stars Records
By

Rating: 2.5/5

 
 

 

 

Ape Up! have traveled the underground for years, proudly self-releasing a pair of “all-demo” works featuring MS Paint-caliber presentation and living-room quality verite in recording. These hallmarks of the pre-Kemosabe career of Ape Up! tend to mar full-length efforts by young bands and this album is no exception, but it is a strong enough effort to hopefully earn this group a larger audience.

Driven by roaring vocals and steady, churning beats Kemosabe’s rhetorical ambitions take a few listening to appreciate, “1(800) WILD-DAD” a reflection on opportunities lost in youth, “No Troy” explaining simultaneously “We fuck and die” and “we fuckin’ die.” The album’s not in the habit of getting much more philosophical than that, and the occasional attempts to pull back on the instrumentation and dig deeper don’t quite pan out.

Production issues hold up the album at several key points – a jarring cut-off in the pre-titular track, “When I Was the Good Guy,” and other small dents in the consistency of the sound that prevents Kemosabefrom being the full work Ape Up! (probably) intended it to be. Then again, maybe the album’s cover design is an ode to the disjointed nature of some of the tracks. “Drainbow” is a curious synthetic pause – I don’t know Ape Up! well enough to guess how its loyal fans will deal with it, but surely it can be only regarded as so ill-fitting as to be wonderful.

Indeed, there’s no criticism of this album one couldn’t have labeled against Vivada-Vis! or Thalidomide Child, except perhaps that Ape Up! has had three years since their compilation to put this one together, while that time period would’ve put Tom Gabel or Mike Burkett back in middle school. Kemosabe is a solid effort imperfect in execution but rich in good intention.

Anchoress - Crime & Compass

Anchoress

Crime & Compass

Self-Released
By

Rating: 4/5

 
 

 

 

Hardcore punk is a dance on the dagger’s edge, a balance groups must strike between heart-racing adrenaline symphonies and irrelevant walls of noise, the risk of blandness on the one end and self-effacing screamfest on the other. On Crime & Compass Anchoress has precisely hit this target and produced one of hardcore punk’s best albums of the year so far.

There is no “-core” contingent of punk that would be able to disqualify Anchoress on some technical grounds. Their songcraft draws heavily on their political brethren, ringing with late-career Propagandhi and mid-career NOFX sounds just as easily as forging their own path with dark, heavy breakdowns that match Isis’ best moments. Much of Crime & Compass focuses on Manichean struggles, tinged with looming storms and black oceans to indicate which side Anchoress sees more of in the world around them.

Overt political references are infrequent, veiled beneath the band’s preferences for pastoral imagery and fantastical narration. One of the best tracks, “Break the Dam, Release the River” appears to be about the financial crises, but “fires from Mumbai to Texas” could just as well be a nod to Smokey the Bear as to Occupy. A track that opines “Oh Stephen, how you’ve failed us all,” must be making a statement on Canada’s shockingly regressive Prime Minister, but Anchoress weaves all its lyricism in ways that will allow its protests to outlive its targets. “Crime & Compass” is poems within poems, names loosely dropped strong statements on morality that use the themes of compasses and navigation to steer its listeners through storms both physical and ethical.

At the same time it’s hard to miss that track’s titular Lord of the Rings reference, and to place it as precisely the moment in that narrative when the darkness broke and began to recede. Find elsewhere the album’s numerous Star Wars references – still within the context of good-and-evil showdowns – and the lightness necessary to keep this album from becoming overwrought shines through.

It’s enough that some of the subject matter – the “voyages” of “mariners,” the sheer aquatic weight of almost every line concerned with dark water – can be accused of unnecessary pretentiousness, a sentiment that is assuaged only by the interspersion of nerd porn. The best moments are where those dueling aspects unite: “The Last Sailing of the Miskatonic Mariner” borrows one of Lovecraft’s scariest stories and some of Nietzsche’s most Zarathustrian blustering to tell a tale of capital-S “Science!”

This all assumes that the album’s lyrics get a thorough listening, a dubious hope given the vocalist’s bouncy, rapid-fire style. The intensity of this genre is not everyone’s cup of tea, but of its style it is among the best.

   
The Adicts - All The Young Droogs

The Adicts

All The Young Droogs

DC-Jam Records
By

Rating: 3/5

 
 

 

 

Counting the re-release of their debut Songs of PraiseAll The Young Droogs marks The Adicts’ tenth studio album in a career that has just passed its third decade. For such a band to retread some familiar territory is inevitable, but The Adicts embrace their roots full-throttle. Absent even Life Goes On‘s modest stylistic ambitions All The Young Droogs is a fitting if worn addition to the anachronistically cheery Britpunks’ repertoire.

The opening “Battlefield W1” portends the album’s thoroughly traditional structure, and most of Droogs marches forward to a handful of major chords and a martial beat. Beginning the album with a reference to a particular London postal code probably unfamiliar to those without family in Westminster is an act of pastiche on The Adicts’ part. Their audience extends well beyond the UK – their biggest festival appearances have all been in the U.S., and Americans produced this album – and so “Battlefield W1,” appropriating all manner of faintly political imagery that extends naturally from the battlefield metaphor, feels misplaced. Droogs is mostly a love letter to old friends and its attempts at anything more serious, namely “Battlefield” and later “Rage Is The Rage” amount to wasted space.

The rest of the album is filled with G-rated waxing on bad behavior hinted at by the use of the word “Droog,” and the album is at its best at its most choral. “Wild” and “To Us Tonight” make the best use of lead singer Keith Warren, the former showcasing his notorious punk monotone to beef up a catchy lick, the latter embedding and enhancing it in a backup chorus that compensates for Warren’s limited range.

After 2010’s highly successful Life Goes On departure it’s surprising to hear Warren return to the familiar with such verve. Indeed this all ages-friendly album makes little use of the Clockwork Orange imagery at all. The catchy but tepid “Horrorshow” misreads Anthony Burgess’ adjective, and the eponymous track makes a successful single but is targeted to an audience that may have missed the reference.

Many literary nods are dumped into this album yet combined with the simplistic song structures that prop the whole thing up one can’t help wondering if The Adicts genuinely embrace their foundational style or if they’re just cashing in on a successful formula. Marching into a fourth decade of performing the line between nostalgia and cynical exhaustion has begun to blur.

That this album’s stark rhythms make perfect putty for a talented live act isn’t in question. Doubtless too is the fact that The Adicts have devised a method for producing the perfectly average, the utterly acceptable punk lick. What is in question is whether that’s really what they meant to do.