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.
There’s no baseball, no shows, nothing to do but sit home and listen to music and wait for the quarantine to end. So every album gets to round the bases this month; it’s a column of HOME RUNS. Stay well, be smart, try not to go crazy.
Brothers Nick Cash and Guy Days started bashing out mid-tempo punk as 999 in the Seventies, architects of a U.K. sound made popular by bands like the Undertones, Buzzcocks, and the early Stiff Records roster. Now here they are 44 years later, with longtime bassist Arturo Bassick and new drummer Stoo Meadows, still going strong. This is the band’s first album of new material in a decade, and while it starts out slow, it ends up delivering some stirringly catchy old-school punk rock anthems, with nods to pub-rock and Thin Lizzy, screeds against guns, violence, and addiction, unexpected humor, and surprising energy. Standouts include “My Dad Trashed My Submarine,” the tongue-in-cheek nihilism of “I Hate It All,” and the groovy “Crazy Tuesday World.” Old dogs don’t need new tricks if the original ones remain entertaining.
The Brains – Santana Tarantula (Batcave Records)
I remember a band called the Brains from the Seventies (and their MTV hit “Money Changes Everything,”) but these Brains hail from Canada, where they’re considered psychobilly legends. Imagine a rockabilly-influenced Misfits and you pretty have much the picture; several songs draw from horror movie tropes and many have a Bad Religion-ish vibe, with big singalong choruses. When the band gets down ‘n’ dirty and sticks to its rockabilly roots, the joint starts jumping; ain’t nothing wrong with bouncing off the walls to high-energy tracks like “C’mon Let’s Do It All Night.” The more somber, sober “Lonely Wednesdays” injects an element of morning-after introspection. The album ends with a fun take on Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue.”
The Bags helped launch punk rock in their native L.A. back in the late Seventies, and I’m happy to report that frontwoman Alice Bag hasn’t lost a step. On her third solo album (in a long career that’s included stints in groundbreaking acts like Castration Squad, Cholita, and Los Tres,) Bag channels the spirit of feminist punk icons like Ari Up, Debbie Harry, and Poly Styrene while updating her approach and lyrics for today’s world. Bag sounds kittenish and sexy on “Switch Hitter,” defiant on “The Sender Is Blocked,” and seriously sassy on the take-no-prisoners “Breadcrumbs” (which features a cameo from Bratmobile’s Allison Wolf.) Her voice has never been stronger or more supple, and her band kicks serious ass.
The Challenged – Wallfighter (self-released)
These stalwarts from the remnants of NYC’s Pop Punk Message Bored scene have been banging away for close to 20 years with very little to show for it, other than the ability to consistently make records that blow you away. Rob Suss’ melodic, expressive vocals remind me of Dan Vapid’s, although the roiling emotions on this album – regret, sadness, disgust – transcend pop-punk, scaling the same heights as the best of Jawbreaker or Husker Du. The uplifting “For Hope’s Sake,” with its promise that things will get better, recalls the Bouncing Souls. This is an album that’s deeply disappointed with the state of the world, yet somehow makes this ungainly mess we’ve made of things seem beautiful and worth saving.
Here’s another blast from the past, one-hit wonder new-wave diva Josie Cotton (of “Johnny, Are You Queer?” fame) returning to the spotlight. The theme here tickles the imagination, as Josie unearths shoulda-been hits from the forgotten soundtracks of trashy B-movies like She Devils On Wheels, Green Slime, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, and John Waters’ Female Trouble (Waters wrote liner notes for the CD packaging.) And guess what? It works. These kitchsy classics make perfect fodder for Cotton’s sex-kitten vocals, from garage-rock to funk to lounge. Cotton never camps it up or condescends to the material, treating every one of these tracks with the care they deserve. She even turns “Goodbye Godzilla” from 1985’s awful The Return Of Godzilla into a legitimate ballad that holds its own alongside any Bond theme.
This weirdly intoxicating “thrashgrass” duo (mixing acoustic bluegrass with the tempos and rawness of punk) has been knocking around for a dozen years, with just trumpet, guitar, and spitfire vocals (expanded for this album with washboard percussion and a single-string gutbucket bass.) After years of hardscrabble DIY touring, Whitney Flynn (vocals/trumpet) and Jesse Sendejas (vocals/guitar) have teamed with Fat for this endearing collection of manic songs about addiction, OCD, politics, and death. They sound like Popeye and Olive Oyl on crystal meth. You’re going to love this.
The hardest working man in pop-punk returns with three originals and a Beatles cover (!), all delivered with his usual slapdash energy, ingratiatingly yawpy vocals, and lovesick sincerity. Mikey describes the EP as a love letter to the Mutant Pop singles of his youth, when an international array of pop-punk bands would churn out tune after catchy two-and-a-half-minute tune, and fans of Mikey’s ‘Aughts band the Ergs will welcome this return to basics after his more expansive and experimental Waxbuilt Castles album last year. I’m not sure which I prefer, the love-smitten “Colleen” or Mikey’s punk-rock demolition of the hippie anthem “Mother Nature’s Son.”
This punk rock supergroup includes some big names: Brian Baker (Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Bad Religion) and Michael Hampton(S.O.A., Embrace, One Last Wish) on guitar, vocalist Dennis Lyxzén (Refused, International Noise Conspiracy), and Johnny Temple (Girls Against Boys, Soulside) on bass. No expectations there, right? Baker, Hampton, and Temple actually attended elementary school together in the D.C. suburbs, although it’s Lyxzén who stands out here. His supple vocals add a groove to the chugging guitars and power drumming that connect the dots between these three-minute blasts of punk and grunge with classic rock.
Gavin Mendonca – Punks & Pirates (self-released)
There’s a contestant on the current season of American Idol from Nepal, and hearing his takes on classic American rock and folk songs has been revelatory. I felt the same way listening to Gavin Mendonca, who calls his fusion of Guyanese folk music, Creole culture, and punk “Creole Rock.” Mendonca brings rock ‘n’ roll to the Caribbean with a popular radio show, where he also advocates for more homegrown music on Guyanese radio. There’s a childlike (but not childish) sense of wonder to Mendonca’s music; just imagine hearing the Queers or Social Distortion or Cheap Trick for the first time, with no antecedents in your own culture or background, and then trying to make that music your own. Mendonca has an untrained but expressive voice and he’s not shy about letting loose, which I love; his fusion of island rhythms and melodies with punk – sung in a Creole accent – adds a dimension to rock ‘n’ roll that’s difficult to describe but easy to enjoy.