Words by Jim Testa
Jim Testa founded the highly influential zine, Jersey Beat in 1982 which he continues to edit to this day. Through writing for his own publication and a number of other outlets, including as a staff writer for Hudson County’s Jersey Journal, he has championed local, regional and national up-and-coming bands. Punk has always shunned credentials, but rest assured that Jim won’t lead you astray.
From Bloomfield, NJ (Ted Leo’s hometown) comes Joy Cleaner, who first came to my attention thanks to their one-off “Easter Sunday” cassingle on Dromedary Records. I immediately dug up their debut album Total Hell and loved it, and now’s here’s the follow up: a jangly power-pop masterpiece (yes, I said it) that synthesizes influences as diverse as Nirvana, Teenage Fan Club, the Lemonheads, and Big Dipper. Seriously, this record sounds a little bit like everything I loved in the Eighties and early Nineties, with infectious melodies, warm harmony vocals, clever and memorable lyrics, succinct but zingy guitar solos, and precise rat-a-tat-tat drumming. The first half embraces the trio’s power-pop roots, the latter more the Lemonheadsy poppy-punk thing they do so well. This one’s a contender for the year end Top 10.
After laying low for the past five years, Rational Athem return with a banger, one of the best punk albums of the year that fuses the bratty brashness of Nineties pop-punk with mature lyrics, passionate vocals, and forceful performances. The Florida-turned-Iowan trio not only rocks but packs a potent sense of humor too, with tracks like “Welcome To Paradise City” (a mashup of Green Day and Guns N Roses,) “Godspeed You! Black Empanada,” and “Stay Together For The Chicks.” “Geographic Dysphoria” recalls Against Me! or the Copyrights at their most fist-pumping, and “Through Being Punk” (a nod to NJ’s Saves The Day?) closes things out with a ferocious singalong anthem that both debunks the glamor of the punk lifestyle and yet promises something better in the future.
THREE BASE HITS
This Seattle trio claims Husker Du, Snuff, and Stiff Little Fingers as influences, which pretty much does my job for me. More precisely, guitarist Ean Hernandez, bassist “Tahoe Jeff” Mangalin, and drummer Matt Coleman write and sing songs that would sound right at home on Flip Your Wig, with each taking lead vocals in front of a hypnotic thrashy-yet-melodic roar of guitar, bass, and drums. Sixteen tracks but nothing clocks in longer than 2:30, and how can you beat a song title like “The Fastbacks Are The Greatest Band In History (So FUCK YOU?)” RIYL: Husker Du, Dopamines, Descendents. Inspirational Verse: “There she is, waiting at Starbucks/Guinevere, in Raybans and Chucks.”
These Chicago gutterpunks put this out last summer but it just showed up in my in-box. It’s worth mentioning for its killer cover of Larry Williams’ “Slow Down,” the slow-dance Johnny Thunders homage “Up To The Sky,” and the band’s unabashed worship of the Dolls and (circa Exile) Stones. Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t always about being original, sometimes it’s just taking a bunch of awesome influences and not fucking them up. Does Little Steven know about these guys? He should, they’re wicked cool.LOCAL DRAGS – “The Boys Are Still In Town” EP (stardumbrecords.com)This 4-song EP from Springfield, IL’s Local Drags gets a second life with this worldwide release on Stardumb and as always with this label, it’s an enjoyable blast of catchy garage-punk with a few twists. “Big Apple 3 am” (a Mutant Teenage Ninja Turtles reference!) sounds like a pop-punk band ripping off Gaslight Anthem ripping off Springsteen, which strangely works. “Girls In Denim Jackets” reminds me of why I fell in love with Kurt Baker way back when I first saw the Leftovers, it’s a wonderful blend of distorted guitars and youthful innocence. “Pins” cranks the volume with its Big Star meets the Replacements vibe. Ah, the Midwest.
TWO BASE HITS
Beantown punk fans take note, former Ducky Boys frontman Mark Lind reteams with the Unloved (after a ten year hiatus) but the result is less classic Boston punk than angsty, plodding faux-Bon Jovi Rock with a capital R. Maybe it is better to fade away than burn out?
Ratbones, from my grandfather’s home turn of Genoa, Italy, and Ottawa, Canada’s Neck toured Europe in 2018 and decided to cement their friendship with this single, with two tracks from each band. Ratbones’ “Cruel Sea” and “Broken Things” (sung in English) both provide a bracing jolt of Lookout Records style pop punk, with “Cruel Sea” suggesting what Screeching Weasel might have sounded like if they’d listened to a lot more Motorhead. Neck contribute the Ramonescore “Ha Ha Hertz,” which has a great “ha ha” bridge, and the delicious “Morrissey Is A Creep,” which sounds like Dee Dee writing lyrics for the Riverdales. Good stuff.
OUT OF LEFT FIELD
“Animal Boy is my favorite Ramones record,” said nobody ever. But continuing a tradition that started back in ‘93 by bands like Screeching Weasel, the Vindictives, and Queers, Long Island’s New Rochelles have covered the Ramones’ ninth studio album in toto. Rookie, Ronnie, and Ricky Rochelle stick to the template and recreate the original, rather than make any attempt to make it their own; but since the band already plays faithful Ramonescore, they’re the perfect band to assay a project like this. Animal Boy followed the Ramones’ career-rejuvenating Too Tough To Die¸and mostly featured songs by new member Richie and Dee Dee (Joey only wrote two tracks, although his “Mental Hell” is a standout.) Ronnie Rochelle (guitar,) with the more guttural voice, and sweeter-voiced Ricky (drums,) take turns on lead vocals, and remind us that for all its faults (including at least six or seven bona fide clunkers,) Animal Boy did feature two of the Ramones’ best singles, “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)” and “Somebody Put Something In My Drink.” “She Belongs To Me” and “Something To Believe In” stand right up there with the Ramones’ best love songs as well. I’m not sure what the point of any of these Ramones cover albums is – and I was saying that in 1993 – but if you’re looking for an excuse to revisit mid-career Ramones, the New Rochelles’ Animal Boy is as good a way as any to kill a half hour.