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.
J. Robbins can’t stop making music. After an early ‘80’s stint in the seminal D.C. hardcore band Government Issue, Robbins formed Jawbox, the band that catapulted him into the forefront of American post-punk. After Jawbox disbanded in 1997 (a reunited lineup is currently touring America,) Robbins continued writing and performing in Burning Airlines, Channels (with his wife Janet Morgan,) and Office Of Future Plans, each offering its own spin on American rock. Now Robbins has released his first solo album, with a familiar supporting cast (drummer Pete Moffett of Burning Airlines, bassist Brooks Harlan and cellist Gordon Withers of Office Of Future Plans) and an eclectic mix of songs that incorporate the disparate elements that run through Robbins’ discography. Jawbox fans will recognize and enjoy the melodic crunch of “Anodyne” and “Abandoned Mansions,” while the grittier and politically charged “Firelight” and “Citizen” recall Channels. The album closing “Stella Vista” offers a gorgeous ballad of straightforward pop songwriting ala’ Burning Airlines, while “Kintsugi” provides an experimental electronic palette cleanser between what, on vinyl, would be Side One and Side Two of this album. Throughout it all, Robbins’ voice retains the keening urgency and sincerity that has been a hallmark of his distinguished career.
If you wanted a template for a new band to sing about breakups, sexism, and bad sex, you could certainly do worse than X-Ray Spex. The four women of Vancouver, Canada’s Necking did exactly that, with nods to Wire, Patti Smith, and the Slits. The resulting nine tracks of angry, angular, minimalist post-punk not only provide a scathing feminist critique of the opposite sex but, like England’s Savages or Mexico’s Les Butcherettes, do it with ferocious wit and precision. I can only review this album from the male point of view, but here’s my take: Men are dogs, this band no makes no bones about it, and yet – kind of like being beaten to a pulp by Wonder Woman – it’s all so exciting and fun that it’s impossible to object.
Indefatigable survivors of the Nineties pop-punk boom, the underrated SoCal quartet Bracket has largely sailed under the radar in recent years, only releasing two albums after 2000. But Too Old To Die Young will please both old and new fans. Bracket’s exquisite vocal harmonies remain a key component of the band’s sound, that fuses pissed-off pop-punk vocals and guitars with the soulful power-pop of bands like Fountains Of Wayne or Superchunk. And – always a plus for me – the band hasn’t lost its sense of humor, with song titles like “Canned From The Food Drive,” “Arting Starvist,” and “Going Out Of Style In Style” injecting wit into an already winning formula. I don’t know why Bracket isn’t bigger than NoFX, but at least Fat Mike had the good sense to release this on his label.
TWO BASE HITS
The members of Acquaintances boast impressive resume’s; three guitarists/vocalists in Jered Gummere of the Ponys, Stephen Schmidt of Thumbnail, and Justin Sinkovich of Atombombpocketknife/Poison Arrows, plus Ted Leo-Pharmacists drummer Chris Wilson. That explains why this (like their 2013 self-titled debut) had to be stitched together from patchwork sessions in a handful of different cities. No problem, though; 8 ½ Lives delivers a cohesive if eclectic collection of songs that rock like what you might expect these punk rock lifers’ record collections to sound like. Nineties indie-rock looms large (Fugazi, Girls Against Boys, Sonic Youth,) along with snarling post-punk in the vein of The Fall on “Barmuda Triangle,” the motorik rhythms and dry vocals of Wire on “And I All Went Black,” and wry social commentary on “I’m An Artisan, Goddammit.” Sophisticated, thoughtful, and flawlessly executed, 8 ½ Lives barely qualifies as “punk” for the purposes of this column, but it’s just too good to overlook.
No surprise a band named Ramona hails from the pop-punk universe where the Ramones created the Big Bang, but there’s nothing dumb, sloppy, or juvenile about Deals, Deals, Deals! The group (which relocated to Philly from Seattle, ostensibly for the cheaper beer) alternates male and female lead vocals, with a non-stop aggression that will leave you spent and sweaty. The album may run less than 30 minutes but it’s packed with thick roiling guitars, exuberant vocals, and an almost giddy energy. The final track “Mambo ‘60” offers a glimpse into a post-punk future the band may explore next. Wherever Ramona goes, I’ll follow, no matter how much I have to pay for a beer.
Rum Bar has long been the home of underrated, under-the-radar garage-rock and power-pop. With Cheap Gunslingers, the label has found a band that isn’t afraid to quote Jonathan Richman while manically strumming a mix of Seventies punk and Sixties Brill Building pop hits. Think the Undertones with guitar solos, or Beserkely Records’ Eighties roster. While this debut album has the innocent enthusiasm of fresh-faced youngsters, singer/guitarist Edo McGrady actually served time in the criminally overlooked Gotohells back in the Nineties. The band’s unabashed catchiness and four on the floor guilelessness makes for a winning combination, whether it’s the Stooges chug of “Junky Friends,” r the Ramones-y ballad “Water Table Line,” or a simple bar room blues like “Bars of The Song.”
ONE BASE HITS
Bliss may remind you of your favorite punk records, even if nothing on the Northern California quartet’s new release merits elevating Decent Criminal into Absolutely Favorite Band status. My guess is that they grew up listening to that second-wave of Nineties/Early 00’s bands like All-American Rejects and Sum-41 along some more rough-edged singalong stuff like the Bouncing Souls. The group harmonizes well, and doesn’t lack in energy. But everything here just sounds a bit too much like you’ve heard it before.
I doubt this ever happened, but if Ian MacKaye had ever jumped on stage to sing with Bad Religion, it probably would have sounded a lot like Corporate Citizen. This San Diego group makes its debut with a forceful collection of songs that clearly draw influence from Epitaph Records’ Nineties roster. There’s even a track called “95 Sound,” which makes the group’s Fugazi worship manifest. “Be careful what you wish for, it just might come true,” the band warns on “Bold Faced Lies,” decrying nationalism and conformity on one of the album’s standout tracks. I will certainly want to hear Corporate Citizen’s next album, even if this one left me impressed but not overwhelmed.
OUT OF LEFT FIELD
Just to show we have nothing against computers taking over the world, here’s an album by post-industrial cyber punks Prettiest Eyes, who could only come from Los Angeles. Imagine Devo propelled into the 25th Century with Buck Rogers and the B-52’s; skittish, goofy, insistent, synthetic, and yet oddly danceable. Dive deep into the maelstrom of psychedelic sound effects that engulfs “Mr. President” and imagine that Johnny Rotten, not Donald Trump, is dragging us all down into Hell. Prettiest Eyes conjures sonic images of both the Pistols and PiL, no mean achievement. And if the future is a “Nekrodisco,” at least we’ll all spend eternity dancing.