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.
Two things make this EP from Boise, ID’s Hidden Home Records perfect for this column: It’s punk rock songs about baseball, and it’s right in that sweet spot of catchy gang-vocal pop-punk that would’ve landed these guys a slot at Insubordination Fest a decade ago. “(I Wanna Wanna) Do It With You” impeccably establishes the band’s Ramonescore credentials. And while most of the songs use the national pastime as a metaphor for life and love, “The Wizard Of Japan” provides the great Ichiro Suzuki with the kind of tribute the future Hall of Famer deserves.
Ten Foot Pole might not be synonymous with Nineties Pop Punk, but they were certainly part of that era, having morphed out of the Eighties hardcore outfit Scared Straight. They remained hard touring road warriors well into the 2000’s, when founding guitarist/songwriter Dennis Jagard took some time off to do sound for major acts like Prince. These guys even have a baseball connection, since former major league pitcher Scott Radinsky fronted TFP for its first few years. And now they’re back with their first new album in 15 years, with a sound still rooted in melodic-hardcore and pop-punk, but with far more ambitious production. Yeah, there are songs here that sound, variously, like NoFX or Bad Religion, but with more polished vocal harmonies, layered synths, skirmishing two-guitar lead lines, and first-rate songwriting. If your head’s stuck in the Nineties, stick this one in your ear.
Cokie The Clown – You’re Welcome (Fat Wreck Chords)
“Fat Mike” Burkett’s notorious alter ego Cokie The Clown will not make you laugh. Or even smile. That’s Fat Mike’s job in NoFX. Cokie The Clown provides Mike with a therapeutic outlet for all the pain, regret, and self-loathing that lies beneath the (usually inebriated) surface. Tears of a clown, indeed. The songs recount the near-suicide of Mike’s wife, his tortured relationship with his parents, the euthanized death of his mother, lost friends and old lovers, several failed marriages, and shots at various unnamed backstabbers, false friends, and sellouts. You will also find, if you’re willing to look for it, a surprising amount of wisdom about the sacrifices, fallbacks, and exceptionalism of being a punk rock lifer. Inspirational verse: “The most incredible ballerinas at some point have to take a bow/Step down and realize that they’ll never get on their toes again/But how many people can say, they didn’t just dance in, they lived a ballet.”
You might not know the name Brad Marino, but he plays in The Connections with Geoff Palmer, and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call them the Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds of contemporary power pop. Geoff has his own full length dropping at the end of May but Brad steps up to the plate here with a collection of high-energy rock ‘n’ roll that will delight any Rockpile fan. While Geoff plays frontman in the Connection, here Marino not only sings but plays all the instruments, save for some keyboard parts by Kris Rodgers. The Rockpile comparison actually holds a lot of weight, with many similarities here to the classic Seventies catalog of Stiff Records, with its groundbreaking roster of Elvis Costello, Wreckless Eric, Lowe and Edmunds. The album just explodes with memorable melodies, earwig hooks, clever lyrics, and cheeky attitude.
EXTRA BASE HITS
Wanna-Bes – “Broken Record” EP (Mom’s Basement Records)
Other than their label’s Bandcamp page, I dare you to find anything on the World Wide Web about this band or record. The Google Machine failed me, but whoever and wherever and whatever produced this little 4-track gem definitely likes the Undertones, crunchy punk rock power chords, concise but feisty guitar leads and short, fast, catchy songs. ‘Nuff said.
Mush – Thank You, We’re Mush (self-released)
Mush’s members live separated by a grand lake in Chicago and Grand Rapids, and – I love this – decided to form a band one night when they were remembering how great Vagrant Records used to be. So if the names Get Up Kids, Dashboard Confessional, Face To Face, Ace Enders, and Saves The Day bring a nostalgic lump to your chest, get onboard. Whatever emo tendencies might emerge here are countermanded by a self-deprecating sense of humor, a decidedly punk sense of disgust with the world, and some very fine songwriting. Paul Westerberg and Evan Dando were on Vagrant at one point too, and I definitely remember how good that used to be.
This young Hoboken, NJ group fuses the deftly intricate start/stop, slow/fast, quiet/loud dichotomies of math rock with the brio and energy of punk pioneers like the Minutemen. Primarily the project of lead singer/guitarist Erica Butts, Rest Ashore records here as a quartet, with a trio of songs about a coming environmental apocalypse. But doomsday never felt this good and even a track with the dire title “New American Fascism” bristles with a breezy jazz-inflected grace and an uplifting melody. Keep your eye on Erica & Co.
ONE BASE HITS
North Jersey Singer/songwriter Ryan Struck expands his template a bit under the band name Scary Hours, playing heart-on-the-sleeve emo-revivalist pop songs on acoustic guitar, backed by a stripped down coterie of guest musicians. On my favorite tracks, Struck mines the former terrain of Plan-It-X Records, with its roster of pithy folk artists with a punk edge, although – and this is probably a generational thing – I find his relationship songs a bit too self-involved (that’s where the emo-revival thing comes in.) Two bonus tracks of Elliot Smith covers come with the download.
OUT OF LEFT FIELD
Any band that bases its career on a Simpsons joke is okay by me, although I’d prefer to think about rather than listen to Howdilly Twodilly. This Phoenix four piece dresses and grows their mustaches to look like Ned Flanders, which should be bizarre enough in itself; but they compound the conceit by playing emo deathmetal, complete with guttural gravel-throated vocals, post-hardcore bass, prog-rock time signatures, and punishing metal riffs. All of which reaches its apex (or nadir) on “Murdiddlyurdeler,” which sounds like Silverstein covering Slayer on acid. Fans of this genre would find much to appreciate here without all the shtickula, which may in fact turn off the group’s largest potential audience.