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.
BIG CHEESE – Wild To Be Born (self-released)
Adam Patten might be a burly Oklahoman by birth but his band’s updated take on Nineties grunge injected with post-punk sarcasm and angular intensity speaks to his current status as a Brooklynite. The current lineup of Big Cheese also includes bassist Marco Sanchez and keyboardist Gwynn Galitzer, who like Patten spun out of the Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen collective of Bushwick scenesters. On Big Cheese’s third full-length, the band expands its “grunge-wave” palette with indie pop elements that suggest Patten owns at least as many Sonic Youth LP’s as Nirvana singles, although tracks like “On My Wave” and “I’m A Sloth” find him wearing his Seattle influences proudly on the sleeve of his best flannel shirt. On the first two albums, Big Cheese relied on speed and urgency almost to the point of coming off a bit one-note, but quirky tracks here like “Filthy Rich” (with its nod to R.E.M.,) “Blank,” and the loping, laconic, homesick “Long Way Off” provide alternate tempos and a welcome respite from the band’s seething intensity. As with the earlier albums, producer Oliver Ignatius (now at Holy Fang Studios in NY’s Hudson Valley) keeps things crisp, fluid, and bright.
DEFECTING GREY – “Run Silent” EP (self-released)
Cadging their name from a Pretty Things song provides a clue to the proclivities of this Central Jersey trio, which features brothers C.J. and Vince Grogan on guitar and bass, and the mighty Mike Polilli (of NJ’s legendary Buzzkill) on drums. This is the band’s second EP (sadly, I missed the first,) with six high-powered tracks of buzzsaw pop rock with a psychedelic sparkle. Think Husker Du’s “Eight Miles High,” since both the grungy Minneapolitans (especially Grant Hart’s poppier compositions) and the Byrds loom large in Defecting Grey’s punchy sound. I don’t know what the title “AYR” means (I don’t think it’s about the jeans brand) but man, what a killer song, with a shouted chorus guaranteed to have you punching the air. The band knows how to write a hooky rock ‘n’ roll song, and with decades of experience between them, can deliver even the simplest three-chord progression with panache and distinctiveness. Both EP’s are available from the group’s Bandcamp page.
KAL MARKS – “Let The Shit House Burn Down” EP (Exploding In Sound Records)
This Boston trio has been quietly burning up the indie underground for a decade, tour warriors and Beantown stalwarts whose deafening live performances and albums keep winning over both pleasantly surprised metalheads and curious rock critics. NPR called them “the loudest band in Boston,” quite a sobriquet for a scene that gave us Dinosaur Jr. and Mission Of Burma (the loudest bands I’ve ever seen.) But when I saw Kal Marks a few years ago at Brooklyn’s short-lived DIY venue Aviv, damn if they didn’t live up to the hype. Kal Marks’ sound usually evinces descriptions like sludgey, goopy, dense, hazy, and of course heavy, and those all still work. But with 2018’s Universal Care, frontman Carl Shane and his bandmates loosened the reins a bit and started experimenting with, dare I say, more accessible sonic explorations than their trademark clobber. That continues on “Let The Shit House Burn Down,” with tracks like the melodic “Science Is Science” and an instrumental version of “It’s So Hard To Know How To Say Goodbye” (which originally appeared on the band’s brilliantly titled Life Is Alright, Everybody Dies.) As that album title suggests, Shane isn’t much of an optimist, and these songs may be his most desolate and despairing to date. But to paraphrase Tom Lehrer, the nice thing about a doom-sludge song is that it makes you feel so good.
TWO BASE HITS
GRIM DEEDS – Reveal (self-released)
Grim Deeds is a masked, shirtless, mysterious and ridiculously prolific punk rocker from California with a passion for the Nineties pop-punk of bands like the Queers and Screeching Weasel Ironically, he writes much better songs these days than either Joe King or Ben Weasel can manage, and while all his albums are recorded on the fly in a home studio, they sound as good as almost anything Lookout Records! ever released. Sarcasm and honesty mark much of Grim Deeds’ songwriting; “Past Your Prime,” for instance, might be directed at the aforementioned Messrs. King and Weasel, “Kill Yourself” is aimed at snowflakes everywhere, and as often happens, “Watching Porn On My Wife’s Computer” makes fun of Grim Deeds himself. Reveal includes a track from an abandoned Japanese language project, a few lost songs or unreleased demos, and a live version of “Happy,” the best Mr. T Experience song that Frank Portman didn’t actually write. Hails!
ADRENALIN O.D. – The Wacky Hi-Jinks Of Adrenalin O.D. (Psychic Volt)
Originally released in 1984, The Wacky Hi-Jinks Of Adrenalin O.D. set the template for much of the ferociously fast and furiously funny hardcore that would follow (Screeching Weasel were big fans, as were the Dead Milkmen and Bouncing Souls .) It’s not a stretch to say that I might not be writing this today if these Jersey jokesters hadn’t inspired me to start my own fanzine back in the day, and sure, “White Hassle” sounds an awful lot like Minor Threat and you can tell these guys really liked the Angry Samoans and the Misfits. But the sarcasm AOD leveled at middle-class Jersey suburbia tread new ground in the early Eighties, and the humor (not to mention the band’s high-speed precision) hold up just fine. The crowd favorite “Rock N Roll Gas Station” also presaged the metal/hardcore crossover that would actually make bands like this (but not this one) commercially viable in the MTV era. The album has been remastered to sound a bit clearer, although the bonus tracks that came with the Chunksaah Records reissue are not included. The repackaged vinyl version with some extra goodies has already sold out, but this reissue will be available on streaming and download platforms as of September 13, and should be a “must have” for any serious student or fan of American hardcore.
DISTURBED FURNITURE – “Continuous Pleasures” EP (self-released)
Everybody knows CBGB and the Ramones, but NYC’s downtown sub-culture of the late Seventies and early Eighties included many less well-remembered bands and venues as well. Disturbed Furniture is one such band, and their old stomping ground Club 57 played host to many of the luminaries of the era. A museum retrospective in 2017 kindled new interest in Disturbed Furniture and its members reformed to gig and record this 5 song EP, which includes both new compositions and reworkings of the band’s old repertoire. The band lived at the edges where punk and art collided, and you can clearly hear those echoes in frontwoman Alexa Hunter’s voice and the supple post-punk rhythms and melodies. Patti Smith, the Bush Tetras, Debby Harry, and Patty Donahue of the Waitresses formed a phalanx of talented, creative women in that halcyon era, and Disturbed Furniture variously recalls all of those icons, although none of “Continuous Pleasures” feels date-stamped or self-consciously retro. Guitarist Jorge Mateus summed it up well: “For Disturbed Furniture, punk’s code is intergenerational and less a nostalgic exercise than a lingua franca for renewed resistance against a political status quo that is more dangerous than anything any of us, from punks to Black Lives Matter supporters, have seen.”
OUT OF LEFT FIELD
THE DOGMATICS – She’s The One (Rum Bar)
The Dogmatics were one of my favorite Boston bands of the Eighties, and man, that included a LOT of great bands. They specialized in simple but insanely catchy rock ‘n’ roll with a Fifties bar room vibe, and live, rubber-faced identical twins Peter and Paul O’Halloran on guitar and bass provided a manic and unique energy. The tragic death of Paul in a 1986 motorcycle accident ended the band’s first incarnation; but eventually, singer/guitarist Jerry Lehane recruited brother Jimmy O’Halloran to replace his sibling. With drummer Tom Long, the band lived again. After years of gigging in their native Boston, the Dogmatics are back with this 5-song EP and sound like they never left, still as bratty and snotty and goofy as ever, singing about girlfriends and summertime like a cross between Eddy Cochran and the early Modern Lovers. There’s even a political song (of sorts,) “The Ballad Of Wilbur Ross” (Inspirational verse: “Wilbur, Wilbur, Wilbur Ross, I’m the man who loves a loss.”) But mostly this is roll back the clock, have a beer and feel good rock ‘n’ roll, and it couldn’t come at a better time.
1 thought on “Column: Punk Rock Scouting Report”
Hails Jim! Thanks for all you do.