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.
THE CHALLENGED – “Negative Space” EP (self-released)
Consistently one of the most underrated and overlooked punk bands in NYC for over 20 years, The Challenged grace us with three songs guaranteed to shake off any lingering covid malaise and get you ready to rock again. Frontman Rob Suss may be a little guy but he’s got a huge guitar sound and a voice that’ll nail you to the wall, as he leads the Brooklyn trio through three unrelenting rockers. Listen to all that’s going on in just 1:47 on “Back From There:” A multi-tracked vocal that wails like an army, a melodic bass line that bounces under a massive wall of chorded guitars, drums that constantly push the tempo, keyboards you don’t even notice beefing up the sound until the fadeout. Then you read the lyrics and realize the entire song is a letter to a girl who won’t write back. A martial beat and wall-of-sound guitars mask the lyrics to “RBS,” but there’s a lot going on there too: “The rent is crippling our priorities/the drinks are rationalizing exit strategies/ Do I still have a sense of community?/ When everything outside seems to be an opportunity – what do we keep?” I hope we get to keep The Challenged for a long, long time.
SCHOOL DAMAGE – Critical Excess (Mom’s Basement Records)
If you’ve been jonesing for a new Screeching Weasel record, you could do worse than this one from Toronto’s Weekend Recovery. From the snotty vocals to the chord changes to that rollicking catchiness and even the guitar/drums sound, this captures the Lookout! pop-punk style down to a (Queers) T(-shirt.) Call it pastiche or paying respect or just making new art with old influences, give School Damage credit for including old-school hardcore sloganeering in the formula, haranguing their listeners against complacency, debt, and drugs, and in a master stroke worthy of Sam McPheeters, writing a song called “Everything I Do I Do It For You” that makes it sound like they hate EVERYTHING. Extra points for Song Title Of The Year: “If You Lived In Hell, You’d Be Home By Now.”
WEEKEND RECOVERY – “No Guts, No Glory” EP (Criminal Records)
This female-fronted trio from Leeds melds grunge, punk, and metal into a potent stew that suggests Heart as much as Hole. Frontperson Lori channels Ari Up on the hectoring “It’s Obvious,” Debbie Harry on the powerful title track, Courrtney Love on the more melodic and less clobbering “Blah Blah Blah,” and Ronnie Spector on the brilliant “The Same Shame,” which melds a “whoa-oh” chorus with a bridge right out of “I Think We’re Alone Now.” If I’m making it sound derivative, I apologize. It all holds together quite well and you definitely get a sense that the band has found its own identity, which makes sense, since I understand they’re a cracking live band who have been touring the UK and doing the DIY thing for quite a while.
MICKEY LEIGH’S MUTATED MUSIC – Variants Of Vibe (Wicked Cool)
For better or worse, Mickey Leigh will forever live in the shadow of his big brother, Joey Ramone. And while he’s been indelibly part of the NYC punk scene since the Seventies, his many projects (The Rattlers, Sibling Rivalry, STOP, even backing Lester Bangs in Birdland) did little to change that. On his first official solo album, Leigh doesn’t exactly disown Joey – there’s too much kinship in their voices for that – but he does make a case for his own legacy, playing the kind of full-blooded rock ‘n’ roll that Steve Van Zandt’s Wicked Cool Records excels at uncovering. With a palette that freely dips into bubblegum, garage rock, power pop, and some occasional weirdness, these 14 tracks continually surprise and entertain. Like “Go Home Ann,” which sounds like ? & The Mysterians playing a church organ, or the pumping, vaguely menacing “Stories That Never Got Told,” that has an Elvis Costello tinge. Or “I Got A Message For You,” that recalls the Monkees’ “Stepping Stone,” or “Lost In Space,” which suggests latterday Ramones, or the self-parodying acoustic ditty “La La Lala.”
RIOT FOR ROMANCE – “Riot For Romance” EP (Friend Club Records/Steadfast Records)
With members in Colorado, Florida, and Georgia, this dreampop trio echo classic rock influences like R.E.M., Mancunian psychedelia, and Eighties New Romanticism. But whatever the source, the band delivers an earnestness that’s impossible to fake, thanks in large measure to Jason Hansen’s emotive, reedy vocals. You believe these songs, whether dark, heavy, and atmospheric like “The Dungeon” or a futuristic, synth-driven, optimistic instrumental like “Destination Somewhere.” Says Hansen, “More than ever in recent years, or perhaps, even a throwback to the 60’s, music is being forged through community. It’s exciting!” I agree.
SOUND & SHAPE – Disaster Medicine (self-released)
This Tennessee trio touches a lot of bases on their latest full length, from polyrhythmic post-punk to an aggressive chugging heaviness to romantic ballads and back again. At their core, though, singer/guitarist Ryan Caudle, bassist Pat Lawry, and drummer Ben Proctor seem most comfortable positioned just slightly left of the mainstream, playing melodic modern rock that wouldn’t leave listeners discomfited slotted between the Foo Fighters and Imagine Dragons. That’s not to sully the group’s DIY credentials, just to suggest that on the next family road trip, you and mom might both enjoy a track like “Don’t Tell Momma I’m A Sinner.”
YOUNG RISING SONS – Still Point In A Turning World (self-released)
Ostensibly a guitar band out of Red Bank, NJ that’s part of Jersey’s “new wave of pop punk,” Young Rising Sons play mainstream pop swathed in synthesizers and radio friendly production. Good luck to all bands, as we used to say back in the day, but you’re more likely to see these guys playing the next iHeartRadio Festival than your neighborhood all ages club.