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.
DELAY – $ong$ For Money (Salinas Records)
Twins Austin and Ryan Eilbeck started playing as Delay in high school with pal Jesse Wither, and by the middle of the 00’s, they had become a hard-touring pillar of Columbus, OH’s punk scene. The band’s been quiet since 2014 (Wither moved to Madison, the Eilbecks both tinkered with solo projects,) but started releasing singles again in 2020, and now there’s a dozen new songs. Do the math and they’ve got to be pushing 40, but Austin and Ryan still sound as boyishly toothsome as they did 20 years ago on head-bobbing pop-punk nuggets like “Roman Candle, Both Ends,” “Shit Creek,” “Drunk Dreams” (with its stark spoken-word interlude) and “Andy.” But being older and wiser manifests itself on slower and more reflective tracks like “Gone God” (pondering mortality,) “Bookends” (a romantic ballad tinged with a fear of heartbreak,) and “Sister” (“she must have fell in love with Jesus/when I was down on my knees/ (I was prayin’)/I know I ain’t perfect/I heard that’s why you love me.”) Delay was one of the best live trios I’ve ever seen, whether performing for a room full of friends at a Columbus house show or headlining the main stage at Insubordination Fest, so here’s to a reunion tour after the pandemic lets up.
KEPI GHOULIE & VIC RUGGIERO – Kepi & Vic: After The Flood…The Moldy Basement Tapes (Eccentric Pop / Stardumb)
East Coast meets da Bronx, pop-punk meets ska-punk, the twee and eternally youthful Kepi Ghoulie teams up with Slackers frontman Vic Ruggiero in Vic’s basement on this delightful collection of covers and reinvented originals. Vic sings the Groovie Ghoulies’ “Carly Simon” and “Break My Heart,” they duet on old blues chestnuts from Jimmy Reed and Sonny Boy Williamson, they slow down the Shangri-La’s “Great Big Kiss” and speed up Chuck Berry’s “It Wasn’t Me.” The songs eschew both pop-punk and ska for breezy folk-punk arrangements that showcase acoustic guitars (or clean sounding electrics,) Vic’s blues harmonica, and tambourine. As the duo recorded these tracks in Ruggiero’s NYC basement, Kepi’s apartment was being flooded back in California, but “The Moldy Basement Tapes” makes a perfect sub-title even without the irony, as these old pros kick back and have fun just like The Band and Dylan at Big Pink. This record has kicked around for years before becoming widely available and say halleluia it finally is.
JEFFREY LEWIS – The 2021 Tapes (Suddenly It’s Been Too Late For A Long Time) (self-released)
“When I started making up songs in the late 90s I would usually make a tape full of songs at least once a year, all from following the example of how Daniel Johnston had done it,” writes Lower East Side freak-folk standardbearer Jeff Lewis. So here’s his tape of songs, song ideas, and parodies from 2021, mostly recorded on “the voice memo thing” on his phone. Lo-fi? Definitely, just acoustic guitar and Jeff’s laconic, often monotone vocals. (“Three chords is jazz fusion” said Lou Reed, a philosophy Lewis has always admired.) And some of these 20 scraps and shards probably could have stayed in the vault. But there’s enough winners here to make a download worthwhile, including “Goodbye Forever Again” (sung with Nellie Bridger) about a couple whose break-ups never stick, “When My Girlfriend Moves Away” (about a breakup that stings,) and “Not What We Want” (a breakup song where Lewis does the heartbreaking.) The pandemic, natch, looms large: “Now We’ve Beat That Stupid Virus We Can Get Back To Our Stupid Lives,” “Long Distance Relationship With My Life,” and “I Wanna Be Vaccinated” (sung to the tune of the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Jeff also pens new lyrics to “Blue Champagne,” a Great American Songbook shmaltzfest from the Forties at the request of pal and frequent collaborator Peter Stampfel. Even sung into a phone, folk-punk doesn’t often get more imaginative, clever, or thoughtful than this.
RICKY ROCHELLE – So Far So Good (self-released)
Ricky Rochelle is one of those singing/songwriting drummers, like a younger, cuter Bill Stevenson or a ginger Mikey Erg, and here he steps out from his gigs with the New Rochelles and Young Rochelles for ten solo tracks, all released as singles throughout 2021. While his other bands hew to a pretty strict Ramonescore vibe, Ricky’s solo stuff strays into power-pop and more melodic, less riff-driven pop-punk. The guy can write a song, and a melody, and a hook, he’s got a pleasing, boyish voice, and the musicianship throughout this (assumedly one-man-band) release captures the innocence and sincerity of his songwriting with dynamic stage-level energy. Ricky got married recently and marital bliss flows through these tracks; so too, unfortunately, does his penchant for silly childish lyrics like “Yeti In The Snow,” “Speedy Jackrabbit,” and “Don’t Put The Chimp In Charge.” Ricky: If you wanna make a children’s album, go for it (see next review.) You are too good a pop songsmith for monkey business.
TWO BASE HITS
HE WHO CANNOT BE NAMED – Fibulouos Fibber & Friends (Laptop Punk)
The usually naked, luchador-masked He Who Cannot Be Named from The Dwarves might not be the first person you’d expect a children’s album from, but here ’tis, complete with a bright and cheerful Dr. Seuss-y cover and lyrics adopted from a book of children’s poems written by HWCBN’s mom. Some punk rock heavyweights – Milo Aukerman, the Pink Lincolns’ Chris Barrow, Grim Deeds’ Dustin Umberger, and Vista Blue’s Mike Patton – come along to sing these silly songs about monsters, trolls, invisible imps, and sad sacks, packed with the kind of catchy hooks that Laptop Punk Records is known for. Think the Archies meet the Grinch, with nods to pop punk, new wave, and Weird Al. And while single adults might want to take a pass, any parent will rejoice at this collection of toddler-appropriate tunes that won’t make mummy and daddy fwow up.
THE DROLLS – That Puget Sound (Snappy Little Numbers)
With ex-members of Pacific Northwest pop-punk legends Sicko, The Drolls debut with high expectations but a minimum of hype. Sicko always sounded like, well, Sicko, but the Drolls expand the basic pop-punk palette to include a dash of the Jam (“Sad Little King,”) more rock (“Worse Things,”) angular post-punk riffing (“Rehashed; Rehased,” which compains about bands doing the same thing over and over,) and an unexpected cover (“In A Big Country.”) The production and mix render the lyrics discipherable without making the vocals overbearing, and the drums have the thick muscular punch of Cheap Trick; there’s melody galore, and plenty of singalong choruses for the fist-in-the-air Fest audience. A very promising introduction.
J ROBBINS / HER HEAD’S ON FIRE – “Uncle John” / “Certain As” (New Granada Records)
This excellent split single features former Jawbox/Burning Airlines frontman J Robbins (whose 2019 solo album blew me away) and Her Head’s On Fire, a new group featuring Garrison’s Joseph Grillo (using the pseudonyme “Sid Jagger.”) Robbins’ “Uncle John” salutes an octagenerian neighbor who became a close friend; it’s roiling post-punk attack, purposeful vocal, and propulsive drumming provide ample evidence that Robbins hasn’t lost a step since his Jawbox heyday. But then the song slows down, emphasizing its melody, making its subject seem larger than life. “Certain As” has a slower, more deliberate tempo, but the sonic guitars and Grillo’s emotional vocal also bespeak a background in Nineties post-punk, but the lovely melody and Grillo’s textured delivery reflect evolution, not nostalgic pastiche.