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.
SCREECHING WEASEL – Some Freaks Of Atavism (Self-Released)
Whoa, where did this come from? Ben Weasel, backed by his current touring band for the first time on record, returns with his best release since 2007’s solo joint, These Ones Are Bitter. Producer Mike Kennerty (of All-American Rejects) injects a bright, modern sound into the proceedings with exquisitely layered guitars and vocals. Kennerty tempers Ben’s trademark nasal vocals without neutering them, to the point where you could actually imagine a few of these tracks on mainstream radio. Some of the standouts here have been knocking around for a while; “Settle In,” with its stinging riff and anthemic chorus, comes from the short-lived Sweet Black & Blue (featuring Ben and Mass Giorgini;) “To Hell With You,” which echoes Screeching Weasel’s early Bad Religion influence, was written for 2011’s First World Manifesto, and “Bleed Through Me” comes from the as-yet-unreleased Baby Fat, Act 2, the follow-up to Weasel’s (completely awful) 2017 rock opera, Baby Fat, Act 1. The B-movie themed “Dead By Dawn” and “Brain In A Jar’ could easily be Riverdales leftovers, while “Problematic,” with its electronic keyboards and Sixties boardwalk vibe, sounds like no Screeching Weasel song ever (although it’s sarcastic poke at #MeToo feminism will come as no surprise). Happily, though, that’s the only hint of politics on an otherwise engaging, entertaining romp and much-welcomed return to form. Josie Cotton (whose ‘84 New Wave hit “Johnny, Are You Queer?” was covered by SW in ‘94,) joins Ben for a duet on the catchy, clever “Turn It Around,” while “Settle In” recalls SW cohorts The Queers and “She Ain’t Your Baby” channels the anti-romantic power-pop of The Mr. T. Experience. This is a home run for sure, and not just in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.
If we do have a revolution this Spring, I hope this is the soundtrack. The Suicide Machines, one of the stalwarts of the Fat Wreck family, are back with another dose of their potent ska-punk, combining the fist-pumping gang vocal celebrations of The Bouncing Souls with pissed-off punk-rock fervor and speedy ska. As the title implies, the band incorporates a much-needed political urgency into this album, addressing the shame of the Flint, Michigan water crisis, climate change (“Detroit Is The New Miami,”) and feckless political discord (“Eternal Contrarian”). These 16 tracks fly by, leaving you pumped up, pissed off, and probably exhausted. If I weren’t afraid of breaking a hip, I’d be skanking around my living room listening to this. Inspirational verse: “If we don’t stand for something, we will all fall for anything.”
Drummer Jason Gates used to live up the block from Aviv, the DIY Bushwick club where I worked the door. Now here he is playing with this intriguing post-punk trio, fronted by the enigmatic intelligence of Madison Velding-VanDam. The Wants occupy a post-punk space somewhere between the motorik momentum of Krautrock and the intriguingly taunting sophistication of New York City post-rock. Think Lou Reed and Sonic Youth celebrating Ian Curtis’ birthday while the Bush Tetras dance to Depeche Mode. Is this punk? Not sure. Is this worth checking out? Most definitely.
Marc Ruvolo has been a staple of the Chicago punk scene for basically forever; his No Empathy shared many a stage with Screeching Weasel back when Ben was still driving his parents’ station wagon to shows. But on the third full-length from his current project, The Fur Coats, Ruvolo shows that he’s never stopped evolving or experimenting. Almost every one of these tracks takes a slightly different tack, from the catchy barroom rocker “Hey God Bone” to the funereal electronic drone of “Crown Shyness,” to the fist-pumping pop-punk romp “Anthem Of The Antropocene.” It’s nice to know there are still some artists out there you can always depend on.
On the follow up to 2018’s Night Slaves III, the Buffalo duo of John Toohill (lyrics, vocals) and David Kane (everything else) expand its sound with synth, guitar, and backing vocals from a few friends. Mostly, though, Night Slaves hews to its haunting style of ethereal post-punk. Equally influenced by British psychedelia, Nuggets-era garage rock, and The Velvets, these tracks pulse, slither, drone, and occasionally rock, as with the peppery “96 Tears” riff that propels “Absolute,” the insistent funk of “Bag,” or the eerily ascending riff that opens “Disorder.” Ten quality tracks.
If you’re looking for something with a few rough edges and a chip on its shoulder, I recommend Chicago’s Permanent Residue, fronted by the caterwauling Kate Manic. The band shares the raw frayed-nerves energy of X Ray Spex, with some nice touches, like the surf-and-spy guitar on “I Don’t” or the New Wave-inflected “David Gilmour Girls.” The 6-song cassette blows by in less than 10 minutes but like a quick slap in the face, you’ll feel the effects for a while.
Chicago’s Rookie consists of six jump-suited rock ‘n’ roll throwbacks. The bulk of the band’s self-titled debut offers laid-back country-tinged tracks that tickle your ears with pedal steel licks, strummed acoustic guitars, and loping melodies, but the high points for me come from the high-octane, three-guitar attack on “Hold Tight,” “One Way Ticket,” and “Miss United States” (a homage to Neil Young & Crazy Horse.) Inspirational verse: “Arguably the best looking jerk on the block, this is my time, this is my time.”
NJ’s ageless pop-punk legends The Parasites and Rotterdam’s Lone Wolf team up on this fourth in a series of international EP’s, each contributing two tracks. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 40 years, The Parasites’ catchy, loping, sad sack “No Sleep Tonight” will feel as comfortable as wool pajamas; the speedier “Nowhere Near Me” matches Dave Parasite’s acerbic lyrics and sweet vocals to a classic pop-punk melody in the Queers/Screeching Weasel mode. The female-fronted Lone Wolf’s two tracks recall Big Eyes, Worriers, or even Lemuria, straddling the youthful catchiness of pop-punk with more sophisticated indie-rock. Good stuff!