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.
L.A.’s Neighborhood Brats started out in the Bay area playing catchy hardcore punk modeled after Penelope Houston’s Avengers. This third full-length not only expands the group’s musical palette but also adds a gritty topicality. In the past, the ‘Rats – formed by lead singer Jenny Angelillo and guitarist George Rage – brought feminist awareness and a critique of punk sub-culture to songs like “Boys For 20 Years,” “The Pharmacy Is Closer Than The Liquor Store,” and “Late Stage Capitalism.” On Confines Of Life, the band tackles homelessness, sexual harassment (“Harvey Weinstein (is a symptom,”) and celebrity culture (“Lebron James.”) “Who Took The Rain” hearkens back to Eighties girl-group punk, “Migraines” mixes surf guitars with Fugazi, while “I Want You” could be an Seventies X-Ray Spex outtake. This is an impressive album, but the Neighborhood Brats need either better production or a lyric sheet.
This Toronto trio makes me want to take back every bad thing I’ve ever said about Canadian rock (including Simple Plan and The Moffatts;) it’s that good. On their third album (but first for Wiretap Records,) Chris Veinot (guitar & vocals), Fabien Rivenet (bass,) and Sean Woolven (drums & backup vocals) strike a perfect balance between punk, power-pop, and the kind of anthemic indie rock you usually only see in the movies. Earwig hooks and singalong choruses and ebullient energy and verve power every track. They even manage to turn a powerful anti-gun song (“Warmest Condolences”) sound warm and fuzzy: “I don’t know what happened/They said it just went off in my hand/It just went off in my hand/I don’t know what I was thinking.” “Syntax Error OK” is what American pop radio would sound like if this country had any taste, and I’m pretty sure “The Ballad Of Jack Nance” contains some lyrical Easter egg about “Twin Peaks,” although I can’t find it. “Up To No Good” suggests these guys came of age when Sum 41 was a really big deal, but they even make millennium mall-punk seem like a good idea, a true sign of greatness.
Retooled for their third album, Greensboro, NC’s Totally Slow (who are totally not) add bassist Kate Weigan for ten tracks of melodic hardcore that melds the precision of D.C. post-punk, the muscular riffs of Chicago bands like Naked Raygun and the Effigies, and metal-tinged hardcore. If I were still young enough to mix it up in a mosh pit without breaking a hip, this is the band I’d want on stage – fast, angry, powerful, forceful, and inspiring. If Minor Threat had written a song about Congress, it would have sounded like “I Yield My Time, Fuck You.”
NJ’s Latewaves bring a lot of the Garden State to their debut full-length, echoes of Thursday and Saves The Day and Gaslight Anthem. Big riffs and gang vocals make the band sound much bigger than a trio, and while most of the songs focus on aspects of mental health and self-image, the tracks (and especially guitarist Mike Pelligrino’s vocals) resonate with hope. I like the subtlety here; “I’m Alright” should be sub-titled “(I’m So Fucked Up But) I’m Alright,” a message repeated in “Guaranteed Burnouts.” There’s definitely an element of emo in the mix, but how could there not be from Gen Y’ers? At least they’ve got a sense of humor about it (“Almost Famous,” “Stroke Of Luck/How Long.”)
Dayton, OH gave us Guided By Voices, Braniac, and the Breeders, and for fans of speedy punk rock, the Raging Nathans belongs on that list. Just a year after the excellent Oppositional Defiance, Waste My Heart shows the band still growing on its third full-length. Strip away the layered harmonies and “I Could Never Fall In Love With You” would sound like the Queers; with them, it’s another ball game. The chord changes and one-string guitar solo on “Wide Awake” come straight from the Descendents playbook, while “Tempus Fuck It” not only delivers a cool Latin pun but sonic guitars and a powerful melody. If you prefer your punk in a more hardcore vein, there’s the screamingly intense “Shadow Of Youth”.
Quiz Show – Geographic EP (self-released)
Chris Matthews – not the former MSNBC host, but a founding member of D.C. post-punk legends Shudder To Think – is a professor of anthropology in Montclair, NJ these days. Quiz Show began when Matthews found fellow Shudder alum Kevin March also living in Montclair; they recruited bassist Frank Gibbons and worked with NJ production guru Ray Ketchem (Guided By Voices, Luna, Versus) to produce this 3-song EP. Quiz Show reflects the brainy eccentricity of Shudder; the title track salutes Marxist geographer David Harvey, whose anticapitalist treatises on cities and social justice have inspired critiques of urban space for the last half century. Middle-aged regret consumes Sunday Morning, while “Januhappy”is a breakup song with the anthemic post-punk grandiosity of Cymbals Eat Guitars. This is a little record that packs a big punch. More, please.
Chris Lowe and Eleot Reich met at an ex-pat open mic in Berlin, then settled in Nashville intent on upending the capital of country music with their subversive brand of cowpunk. Lowe and Reich’s voices sound a good deal like John Doe and Exene in X (or Tammy Wynette and George Jones on hard drugs and cheap whiskey.) The duo mashes up Hank Williams, AC/DC, Dolly Parton, and ZZ Top, often with self-deprecating humor but sometimes with deadly earnestness. For a guitar/drums duo, they can make an impressive racket (as on the instrumental blues assault “ETXorcism” while remaining consistently entertaining.
Hey, Canada, leave me alone. I’m busy. So here’s AVEM, a “birdcore” band from southern Ontario, who write Ramonescore ditties from the viewpoints of birds. I kid you not. Metaphors being what they are, lines like “I can’t fly anymore across the water” or “flying back to you” work for people too; the one about freaking out when a cat’s coming, less so. But damn if this stuff isn’t catchy as fuck, with those requisite “whoa-oh” parts. Fans of, say, Teenage Bottlerockets, be alert. Cobra & The Daggers are Nova Scotians Cobra Costa and J. Rodgers; the former writes the lyrics and sings, the other guy writes the music and plays all the instruments. Call this twee-punk, bubblegum melodies and vocals like Beatnik Termites or Kepi Ghoulie. And they do the whoa-oh thing too.
Like an awful lot of bands, Melbourne, Australia’s Clowns had a promising touring career derailed by COVID-19. Their 2019 debut Nature/Nurture veered from crunchy pop-punk to slow psychedelic jams, but on “Does It Matter,” it’s all big hooks and snotty vocals and garage-rock guitars, a fist-in-the-air singalong anthem that expresses the pent-up frustration we’re all feeling. Borrowing a page from Judas Priest (along with the punk-as-politics vibe of the Nineties,) “Does It Matter” hails the fun of breaking the law: “We’re flippin’ the script/can’t we admit, thievin’ is fine, let’s eat the rich/We are the cause, we’ve all got flaws, and good people disobey bad laws/ so let’s take it all!” Here here.