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 columnist for Off Shelf with the Punk Rock Scouting Report and 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.
Months before Todd Haynes reawakened the nation’s Velvet Underground Appreciation Society, these veteran NYC scenesters showed how it was done. Acid Dad’s lysergic perambulations borrow elements of the VU’s druggy enchantment overlaid with a modern takes on psychedelic garage rock.
Kevin Whelan presents his half of the Wrens’ long-finished but never-released final album, along with five new tracks recorded with bandmates Greg Whelan and Jerry MacDonald. If it’s not quite the timeless masterpiece that Wrens fans imagined, it’s still much, much more than pretty O.K., a middle-aged reckoning with wasted opportunities, regret, and the eternal promise of a better tomorrow. Alternately densely sonic and quietly introspective, Tom Beaujour’s production undoubtedly loses some of the nuances that frontman Charles Bissell’s endless tweaking might have captured but delivers shivers nonetheless, with heart-wrenching vocals, ethereal harmonies, and powerful explosions of rock ‘n’ roll volcanics.
2021 saw the return of many artists after extended hiatuses, including (on January 1) the first new release from Austin’s Ben Kweller in nine years. Like Conor Oberst, Kweller has matured without surrendering his boyish innocence and charm, as he exhibits on this charming collection of modern alternative country, Americana, and a few pop-rock bangers. Welcome back.
THE HOLD STEADY – Open Door Policy (self-released)
Shlubby Craig Finn’s Everyman short-story lyrics remain a given, but the Hold Steady becomes a much better band with Franz Nicolay on keyboards, as evidenced by 2019’s welcome return to form, Thrashing Through The Passion. Now a sextet, the ensemble as a whole has never sounded as cohesive and focused as on Open Door Policy, which offsets Finn’s sardonic lyrics about bottoming out in life and love (now often delivered in a relucatant first person) with intricately textured compostions that broaden the songs’ emotional palette. This used to be the world’s best bar band; now, it’s music for those of us who only get to the bar once in a while, but still find a million ways to fuck up.
THE JEFFREY LEWIS & PETER STAMPFEL BAND – Both Ways (The Great Lost 2017 Double-Album) (self-released)
Just as this inspired multi-generational Lower East Side weird-folk duo were finishing this album, Peter Stampfel lost his voice to dysphonia, and there went 2017. Then came, well, you know… lots of other stuff. If you haven’t heard the first two Stampfel/Lewis albums, you should find them, immediately, but in the meantime, here finally are the many joys of Both Ways: A musician’s manifesto, a murder ballad, two anti-Internet screeds, a couple of folkie barn dance romps, and several inspired covers, all delivered with Stampfel & Lewis’ trademark caterwauling vocals, folkie instrumentation, and offkilter humor.
On his sophomore release, the L.A.-based Profitt moves beyond the lo-fi Elliot Smith squall of his debut for jangly guitars, sultry vocals, and self-aware, post-romantic songwriting. Most of the music we heard in 2021 reflected the isolation and despondency of our pandemic year, and there’s certainly a sadness running throughout Speedstar. But there’s also a sense of coming out the other side, an inherent optimism (call it poptimism,) reminiscent of Chris Stamey and Alex Chilton at their most buoyant.
Nearly 20 years into a career of sustained excellence, Carbondale, Illinois’ Copyrights face down their fate with a concept album that deals with being exactly who they are, a small town, hard-touring pop-punk band skirting mainstream success. On their first album in seven years (and first for Fat Wreck,) there’s rancor and disillusionment here, but not bitterness, And maybe even a little hope.
The enduring influence of Wire and The Fall can be heard in a new generation of manic, pissed- off UK post-punk, epitomized by the charismatic, sexy, pulse-pounding assault that is Shame. Vocalist Charlie Steen and guitarist Sean Coyle-Smith rage like uncaged predators, with a sound that’s more textured and nuanced than the band’s excellent debut without losing an iota of its post-adolescent fury.
TOO MUCH JOY – Mistakes Were Made (self-released)
A quarter century after their last album, Too Much Joy returned in 2021 not only intact but still as tuneful and entertaining as ever. Some of these songs could date back to the band’s Nineties heyday, like the joyful ode to “Snow Days” or “Flux Capacitator,” a goofy tune about time travel. But the shadow of the Trump presidency and the covid pandemic can be keenly felt on the disillusioned “Something To Drink About,” the yearning “More Of The Stuff I Like,” and the hopeful “Just Around The Bend.” And in perhaps the most 2021 gesture of the year, there’s a secret track to thank the Patreon donors who made the whole shebang possible.
These Stockholm miscreants led by the provocative rasp of Sebastian Murphy pump No Wave skronk, New Wave dance pop, and bluesy swagger into their killer second album, focusing their vitriol and sleaze squarely on themselves. Dogs provide a recurring theme – used as a metaphor for the human condition, I suspect; although maybe they just like canines better than people. The energy is infectious, the wit biting, the grooves compelling, and the ending unexpectedly charming, with a jazz-inflected cover of John Prine’s whimsically self-deprecating “In Spite Of Ourselves.”