Words by Tommy Johnson
When not writing as a Cleveland Browns apologist, Tommy Johnson has contributed features and reviews on musicians for Off Shelf, Ghettoblaster, and local Dayton print and web publications. His writing style is to try and capture the stories behind the music for those who want to share.
At the end of their touring in support of Jessica Rabbit, the duo of Sleigh Bells were facing a mountain of stress individually and musically. When the fog cleared and writing began for Texis, both Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss found themselves tapping into a new level within their work. Start to finish, Texis explodes from the speakers with a blitzing arsenal of hyperpop instrumentals and vocals. “Locust Laced” is a flawless example of where the duo is taking the music towards. The rapid guitar riffs Miller rips off absolutely sent me through the gauntlet. Texis undoubtedly will be listened for years by die-hard followers of the ensemble.
Pom Pom Squad – Death of a Cheerleader (self-released)
Pom Pom Squad are arguably one of the best bands that are slowly emerging from the NYC vicinity. Following the breakthrough EP Ow, Death of a Cheerleader highlights growth from within every aspect of the band. The tracks on the album bounce around from anthemic “Head Cheerleader” to the beautifully strings opening “Crying.” “Cake” and “Lux” together are peppered with angst that flourishes with grunge/punk flair. Lead singer Mia Berrin demonstrates a flourishing presence vocally with such ease. Lyrically, Berrin looked inward and discovered a feminine awakening all while trying to manage the established complexities of heartbreak, relationships, and injustices. The end result is astounding and deeply raw.
I hoped that I could write about my first experience listening to Good Morning’s single “Country.” Hearing the fluctuating guitar riffs, tapping cymbals, and bouncy synth which leads into the rest of the swirling concoction of instrumentals coming in had me dead to rights. When you think you get enough, Stefan Blair begins singing the verse, “I’m thinking ’bout going back to the country/I’m thinking ’bout going back for some air/I’m thinking ’bout how we used to be friends/I wanna tell you being up there/So I’m writing you this song I wanna send you/In this room that I’m tryna keep clean/It’s time we overhear you by the whole punch/In the deaf nothing you could sleep.” Good Morning pushed to make Barnyard feel not rushed and overworked. When you spin through the indie pop/folk songs, including my favorite of the album “Country,” you catch a duo that achieved their goals and then some.
Notoriously known for his involvement with At The Drive-In and Sparta, Jim Ward’s solo efforts shouldn’t be overlooked. His latest release, Daggers, could be easily dubbed as the best work to date. In the midst of the pandemic while being in lockdown, Ward started to stare down the emotions and feelings that he had buried for so many years. Daggers is Ward taking accountability of what the result has become and emerging out of the pain a better human. The album’s opener “Day by Day” allows Ward to set the table for what’s to come: “You can’t give up, you can’t give in/We’re gonna get therе the hard way/We’re gonna takе it day by day.” “Blink Twice” roars with emotional and convection with heavy guitar riffs. Incubus bassist Ben Kenney and Thursday drummer Tucker Rule help Ward flesh out Daggers while Shawna Potter from outfit War On Women provides additional vocals on “I Got A Secret.”
In the grand scheme of the music business this year, Gen Z musicians like Oliva Rodrigo found prominent success. One act that deserves more accolades is Norwegian singer-songwriter Marie Ulven Ringheim. Going under the moniker girl in red, Ringheim’s effort if i could make it go quiet – in my opinion – trumps anything that most of the pop artists released this year. Tracks like the opener “Serotonin” provide a deeply entrenched look into Ringheim’s thoughts and feelings; combatting the internal conflicts of self-destructive tendencies and mental health struggles. A friendship that was hopefully going to be something more ends up going south engulfs the guitar driven, drum machine single “You Stupid Bitch.” if i could make it go quiet is in many ways unfiltered which is refreshing with heavy amounts of indie pop, grunge, and electronica. Ringheim is only getting started with her descent into the upper levels of artists that will be making a lot of people take notice for years to come.
Back in 2015, Los Angeles ensemble Neighborhood Brats were set to embark on a hiatus. Let’s all take a collective deep breath and exhale that the break was nothing more than a short pause. The ensemble’s release Confines of Life blazes through the music landscape with recklessness energy. This is in part due to following their DIY background along with elements of early punk and hardcore. The music is fully alive within the tracks in Confines of Life, with lyrical subjects ranging from ongoing environmental crisis, systemic oppression, to human interests that often affect everyone. Don’t fuck around with the volume when listening to this album. You turn it all the way up and proceed to rip off the knob.
I have a variety of music genres that I am obsessed with, like most people. One of my all-timers are bands that incorporate a level of slacker rock within their music. Canada’s own PACKS stop me dead in my tracks every fucking time with their jangly rock anthems that make up Take The Cake. Lead singer Madeline Link’s vocal presence is memorizing and her bandmates compile up instrumentals that are grunge-induced. The guitar riffs are heavy handed and feel somewhat blown out. Each of the songs don’t settle down; they primarily clock in just above two minutes. Ahhh…the good stuff. Tracks that are a must to add to playlists are “New TV” and “Silvertongue.”
The ominous feedback of the guitar and pounding drums that start off “…Sucks” from Seattle’s own Wild Powwers set the table for What You Wanted with with brute force. Start to finish, frontwoman Lara Hilgemann’s growling vocals in the beginning waver to commanding when she hits the chorus and later part of the track. The rest of What You Wanted highlights the band the same intensity, never permitting a minute of ease to be loosened. “Decades” glistens with Lupe Flores driving drums and Hilgemann delving deep into lyrics dealing with the struggles of depression. “Pageant” is a classic rocker that showcases each member to utter brilliance. Wild Powwers for years have been carefully crafting their sound; What You Wanted signifies the band’s strongest work to date.
Since emerging onto the music scene, Adia Victoria has presented a library of work that will tell the test of time. Rich in texture and storytelling, Victoria commands you to take notice with her grace. In her third effort, Victoria seemingly moves the narrative onto a broader landscape. The tracks are tailor made to have the pulse of the South, a vibe that the singer-songwriter can present with clarity after spent most of life living in the region. Margo Price and Jason Isbell offer their expertise in the roaring single “You Was Born To Die.” Alt-country is not prepped for this up and coming artist.
We all had to reconfigure how we went about our daily lives and work once the pandemic began. For a lot of bands, there was uncertainty on how they would go about putting together music. The members of North Carolina’s Speed Stick looked to break out of the conventional mold and recruit friends to help them flesh out Volume One. Artists such as Mac McCaughan (Superchunk), Kelley Deal (The Breeders, R. Ring), Mike Montgomery (R. Ring), Stuart McLamb (The Love Language) were sent files of drum sets and were free to incorporate their spin on top. The result is a dynamic arsenal of exploding vocals, off-kilter guitar riffs, and attacking drumbeats.