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.
In 2018, Philly’s Tom Gill didn’t own a phone, or a car, or even his own apartment. He worked a minimum wage job in the park and wrote 150 songs that summer, recorded a bunch of them alone on Garageband, and Sleeper Records released a few cassettes. Last year, Gill’s band 2nd Grade broke through to appreciative fans and won critical raves with Hit To Hit. Now Gill has returned to those largely unheard demos, re-recorded a bunch of them with his group of Philly all-stars, thrown in a few outtakes, and bundled the whole shebang as Wish You Were Here Tour (Revisited.) For fans of classic underground power-pop – from Big Star to Tommy Keene to Shoes to the Raspberries – this album will be a godsend. Gill may be as prolific as Bob Pollard but he shares a soul with Alex Chilton. There’s a wellspring of sweet emotions and a sunny disposition pouring out of these tracks. The new versions showcase Gill’s songwriting with rich, twangy tones and polished harmonies, but it’s the demos that prove a revelation. Most of the songs clock in at under two minutes, just each has a melody, a riff, a chorus that sticks in your head. It’s the sound of a young man crashing on a friend’s futon dreaming Brian Wilson dreams and pouring every bit of his heart into a laptop. Sometimes those dreams come true.
TURNPIKE GATES – “City In Heat” (self-released)
Five notable tracks from this up’n’coming combo, fronted by singer/songwriter Ryan Smith and produced by the redoubtable Pete Steinkopf. Although Smith currently hangs his hat in Jersey City, there’s a lot of Asbury Park here, from the Bouncing Souls gang vocals on “Drive By” to the Gaslight Anthem punch of “Church.” There’s a stinging indictment of Amurrica in the title track, more roiling rock on “Seasick,” and for something completely different, Smith chokes out the emotional “Make Me” accompanied by only acoustic guitar and sonorous cello.
BATHROOM OF THE FUTURE – “Everyone Else Is Having Fun Here But Me” (self-released)
“Nerd rock for punks, or pop punk for nerds” goes the slogan for this Southern Michigan trio, who have been banging around since 2015 but largely unknown. And that’s a shame, because their stuff – as represented by this EP – is catchy and funny and, yes, nerdy. Fans of The Mr. T Experience should eat this up. On this extended single, the band sings about the simple joys of watching Bill And Ted (“outside with you,” presumably at a drive-in?) and the rapture of finding a girl who digs video games (“Capcom Girl.”) The third track is silly chiptune remix of “Capcom Girl.” Skip that and check out the band’s cover of the Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love” instead (also on their Bancamp page.)
Hailing from Tampa Bay, Secret World contains ex-members of Awkward Age, Rutterkin, and Too Many Daves and are headed for Fest 19 in the fall (where they’ll undoubtedly kill.) There’s a clear kinship to Tampa’s Iron Chic and Hot Water Music, although I hear a lot of Jawbreaker too, with pounding riffs and shouty vocals from the two co-lead singers. “Sea Of Conversations” might be about touring or just cross-country relationships but it’ll have you throwing your fist in the air and singing along regardless, while the raw-throated “Blackguarder” might be referencing Trump (“And when you sprayed gas into a crowd /you thought you’d stop /our celebration / dance on the avenues”) but rocks the soul regardless. “Secret World” asks a lot of big questions: Where do we go? What’s the answer? The point (I think) is that the answers don’t matter, as long as we’re asking together.
GRIM DEEDS – Only The Beast III (self-released)
Dustin Umberger – the uber-prolific one-man band who records as GRIM DEEDS – churns out so much music that, as the title suggests, this is already the third “best of” collection from his humongous discography. But this one’s a little different: 16 tracks redone with Umberger on vocals and Swedish musician/producer Cederick Forsberg playing all the instruments and mixing/mastering the results. It’s a bit of a misnomer to dismiss GRIM DEEDS as Ramonescore; his style should really be called Lookout-core, short and catchy homages to MTX, the Queers, Screeching Weasel (AND the Ramones) (and the Descendents, actually.) GRIM DEEDS can be angsty and sincere (“Falling Rain,” “Brother,”) sarcastic and funny (“Dead Grandpa,” “It Sucks To Be An Adult,”) even romantic (“For Sheila.”) There’s even a little metal and prog (“Leave The World Behind,” “My Destiny.”) But he’s at his best with those blasts of snotty, catchy pop punk like “Dear David Jones” (with Kody Templeman of Teenage Bottlerocket,) “It Sucks To Be An Adult,” and the doo-wop tinged “Everyone Was A Baby.”
As you can probably tell from the spelling, Lovebreakers hail from the UK, although they recorded in L.A. and clearly listen to a lot of American punk. Guitarist/lead singer Jack Perry mimics Billie Joe Armstrong’s nasal vowel sounds and many of the riffs and chord changes stink of Green Day, leavened with 2000’s Britpop. It sounds like there’s a punk band in there somewhere struggling to escape from the glossy L.A. Radio-ready production; the cloying vocal on “Cling On” makes me throw up in my mouth a little, and the jaunty “I Will Love Life” rings untrue somehow. When the band ponders growing older (and trying to stay young) on “Horizons,” Perry sings “wear my skinny jeans, feel like a libertine,) which would be a great line if he meant “feel like a Libertine,” but I dunno if Pete Doherty would approve. “Family Man” tosses in a lovely Kinks (or Blur?) homage, making it my pick track.
HIT BY A PITCH
THE LET ME DOWNS – Tacoma Is For Lovers (self-released)
After forming in Tacoma and then being separated by the pandemic, bassist/vocalist Paul Levesque recorded his parts in Phoenix while drummer Stump Guardiana and guitarist/vocalist Pat Hall worked back in Washington, and the results come in the form of snotty-voiced pop punk, with catchy one-string riffs and driving temps. Kudos on seamlessly pulling off the two-state thing; the drums here rock, even if the rest comes across as a bit pro forma. Not bad but nothing that anyone who owns Anthem For A New Tomorrow hasn’t heard before. And while the songs supposedly represent a tough year in Levesque’s life (which we’re not doubting, it was a tough year for most of us,) the emotional pitch throughout the album remains numbingly consistent. The rumbling bass on “Jameson On Ice” impresses, “Tongue Tied” speeds things up nicely, “Alcohol Or Guillotines” could be a Methadones outtake.
HIGH HEELS – Fast Times At Hex County High (self-released)
This Lancaster, PA trio play pop-punk in the Lillingtons/TBR style with a spooky twist, so you get song titles like “Cemetery Sisters,” “Kutztown Halloween Riots,” and a lot of allusions to serial killers. The liner notes say this was recorded live in an abandoned $1 movie house, and the acoustics sound like it – dulled, echoey and thudding. That may be the point, and points given for not going for all the obvious horror-flick tropes. But there’s a difference between singing about the dead and dead-sounding (not to mention monotonous.)
VON ERICHS – First Blood Match (Mom’s Basement Records)
Do you like gimmicky Ramonescore? Then I have the band for you! The Von Erichs (named after the Texas family of pro wrestlers beset by suicides, freak accidents, and early deaths) crank out catchy three-chord tunes while namedropping (or obliquely referencing) Jim Neidhart, Miss Elizabeth, Hulk Hogan (“Cocaine,” apparently a nod to The Immortal One’s beef with Ultimate Warrior,) Kamala, Repo Man, Bret Hart (“Excellence Of Execution,”) Ric Flair (“Figure Four,”) and the Texas Tornado. Musically, it’s all paint-by-numbers except the bonus track, where the band redoes “Kamala” as a cappella doo wop, which is actually pretty cool. RIYL Steinways, Kobanes, Radio Buzzkill.