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.
VISTA BLUE – “Stealing Signs” EP (Outloud Records)
Nashville’s prolific pop-punker Mike Patton (no, not that one) welcomes Spring with the baseball- themed title track and six more songs, all running about 11 minutes. This checks all my pop-punk boxes: Singalong melodies, bouncy head-bobbing rhythms, and clever lyrics. I would love to know the whole story behind “Bryan Funck Ripped Us Off,” and whether or not it’s specifically about the pandemic, “I Miss You” is the perfect Dr. Frank-styled love song for our times. The EP includes two fun covers, “Saturday Night” by The Wanna-Bes and “Safari” by Parasite Diet, both treats.
L CARS – “The World Is So Much Stranger” EP (self-released)
Lucas Carscadden played in the excellent Baltimore trio Dead Mechanical, but these days he’s a dad with a day job and makes music in his home studio. “The World Is So Much Stranger,” his second EP as L Cars, is actually a song cycle based on seven stories by Junji Ito, the Stephen King of Japanese manga. I know squat about horror manga or mangakas but fortunately these songs can be thoroughly enjoyed on their own. Lucas’ angsty, raspy vocals – think Blake Schwarzenbach throwing a temper tantrum – and his ear for melody and driving rhythms remain unique in the modern pop punk canon. I can barely believe one person played guitars, bass, and drums on these tracks because everything impresses, especially on the atmospheric “Fashion Model,” the motorik “World Without Streets,” the moody, bombastic “Hanging Balloons/The Thing That Drifted Ashore,” and the spooky “Long Dream,” as ethereal as church bells clanging in a graveyard. You don’t need to have read the graphic novels to appreciate the sense of doom, dread, and crisis either.
STONER CONTROL – Sparkle Endlessly (self-released)
What’s in a name? Stoner Control don’t play stoner rock; far from it. Remember Semi-Sonic’s one hit, “Closing Time?” That what Stoner Control reminds me of, catchy indie-pop with a little crunch, a happy candy bar of a band whose music goes down easily. “Learning To Swim” makes a clever metaphorical connection between jumping into the deep end of the pool and falling in love, while “Elevator World” reminds me a bit of Mikey Erg. (That’s a big recommendation.) Guitarist Charley Williams and bassist Sam Greenspan trade off lead vocals, while drummer Mike Cathcart keeps an enthusiastic beat going. Very worth checking out.
TWO BASE HITS
CHASER – Dreamers (Pee Records)
The whole idea of skate punk seems a bit dated, like wallet chains or the Warped Tour, but SoCal’s Chaser proves there’s still a place for fast-paced, melodic punk rock with whoa-oh choruses, anthemic choruses, and pointedly political lyrics. The themes here may seem familiar – Fight back! Don’t quit! Chase your dreams! – but Chaser’s resolute sincerity and intensity keep it all fresh. The band holds the requisite guitar solos to a minimum – they’re there, but don’t overwhelm – and even if it gets a bit samey-sounding over 13 tracks, this still qualifies as bracing and invigorating. Inspirational verse: “The ones who pull the strings get off at our expense/You’ve got the money, but we have the common sense.”
SONGS FOR SNAKES – Forced Pleasantries (self-released)
I’ve always been a sucker for trios, even more so when they’re inspired by bands I love like Jawbreaker and Husker Du. Both of those influences loom large on the 8-song Forced Pleasantries, which also incorporates languid shoegaze elements and allows songs to leisurely stretch out over five to eight minutes. Bob Mould had his psychedelic side too, of course. Do I prefer the shorter, faster songs like “Her Descent” and “A Vapid Life?” Yes. But I also enjoyed listening to these guys stretch out and let their songs breathe.
THE SLIP ONS – “Bad TV”/”Cork & Kandy Glass” (self-released)
Although they hail from Vancouver, British Columbia, the Slip-Ons calls themselves “old school punk with a nod to Minneapolis.” Elements of Soul Asylum, Jayhawks, and Husker Du do make themselves felt on both of these tracks, although not to the point of pastiche (or parody.) Rather, the Canadian trio plays hooky indie-pop with engaging melodies, crunchy guitars, and distinctive vocals. I am pretty sure Bob Mould would dig this, but not to the point of saying, “who’re these guys imitating me,” y’know?
DIRECT HIT! – “Hollow Comfor” (self-released)
Even a demo is better than nothing after a year of COVID, especially from Milwaukee’s underrated Direct Hit!, who released this to take advantage of another Bandcamp Friday (when the site waives fees and pays all proceeds to the bands.) These guys remind me of Grath Madden’s bands (like The Steinways or Houseboat,) in that they make seemingly dumb pop-punk tunes that are actually a lot smarter than they seem. It’s all so effortlessly catchy and light that the music belies the intelligence of the lyrics. “Hollow Comfort” asks hard questions about maintaining our identity while constantly worrying about how we come across to a society that’s constantly watching us. “We’re all uneasy, knowing that we’re watched/Yeah we’re uneasy, desperate to control how we appear to ourselves/ It’s hollow comfort knowing we’re not alone.”
LONG FLY BALLS TO THE OUTFIELDER
THE GUNGANS – …And The Fans Who Hate Them (Outloud Records)
Prolific one-man-band Dustin Umberger, who also records as the metal-spoofing GRIM DEEDS, created this project for his poppier songs. As in the past, Umberger unleashes scads of Screeching Weasel, Queers, and Lookout! Records love here (the album title and cover art parody The Mr. T Experience this time around) but the songs lean heavily to Ramonescore. Umberger seems to possess an inexhaustible supply of catchy melodies and frantic riffs; on “Left For Dead,” he even approximates Dr. Frank’s trademark lyrical wit. But too much of this sounds too much like GRIM DEEDS for a more enthusiastic endorsement.
BLANKETMAN – “National Trust” EP (PIAS)
Manchester, UK’s Blanketman raised expectations with two solid singles but the group’s 7-song debut EP disappoints. Like seemingly every new British rock band in the last few years, Blanketman starts with a basic template built on Wire and The Fall’s angular post-punk, but unlike, say, Idles or Shame, they don’t push the formula much further. Everything gets played at the same tempo, with the same guitar tones, and vocals that try to insinutate a contempt for modern British society but fall just short of the requisite snarl. If any of these tracks popped up on a playlist (or the radio, if you remember that,) I’d ask, “Who’s that? What oh. Brilliant.” But the band needs to widen its sonic scope a bit before they assay a long-player.