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.
TED LEO – “For Coit And Killie” EP (self-released)
In a more perfect world, Ted Leo would be a much bigger star than, say, Shawn Mendes. But in this one, he’s “stealing time here and there to work on music” of “varied production” and releasing it himself on Bandcamp Fridays. Still, four new demo-quality Ted Leo tracks and a Bee Gees cover? We’ll take it. Written, played, recorded, mixed, and mastered by Leo, the EP features ambitious arrangements and, of course, Leo’s incomparable songwriting. “Too Bright Window” brings together the soul of an Irish poet, the chops of an accomplished musician grounded in punk, and the anti-capitalist outrage of a revolutionary, with exquisite lines like “It’s not a personal failure – entropic miasmas and grief / Raised to believe in a system where it’s only money/That buys you relief.” The dark, churning “Hard Times” remixes a track that originally appeared on an obscure split EP, while the title track is a delicate acoustic ballad infused with warmth and gentleness. The yearning, heartbroken “Leaving River Road” arrives as a harbinger of a cold, cruel winter, and Leo finishes on piano with an orchestral cover of the Bee Gees’ Dylanesque “Don’t Want To Live Inside Myself.” No one’s had worse luck with record labels than this guy, but few deserve the chance to make another proper album more. We can but hope.
Even after a decade on the scene and three excellent LP’s to their credit, it’s still disconcerting when Martha’s perfect take on American pop-punk comes delivered in those unmistakably British accents. Hailing from the Northeast UK, Martha’s fourth album arrives at the perfect time for us Yanks, what with an imminent rightwing takeover of Congress as well as the growing threat of climate change gnawing at our nerves. Martha’s music is sunny and sweet, all wraparound harmonies and chimey guitars and buoyant melodies that cry out for singalongs. But lyrically, Martha have matured beyond sugarcoated love songs and post-teen angst; “Hope Gets Harder” searches for optimism in world turned to shit, “Please Don’t Take Me Back” puts a modern spin on “it’s not you, it’s me,” and “FLAG // BURNER” turns protest music into emo-y party song. I am writing this on the day before Election Day, and by week’s end, a lot of us may be singing along with Martha’s “Total Cancellation Of The Future.” Or, if we can find the strength to hang in and fight back, “I Didn’t Come Here To Surrender.” And what could be better right now than a feel-good campfire song for the Apocalypse like “You Can’t Have A Good Time All The Time?“
NASTYFACTS – “Drive My Car” EP reissue (Left For Dead Records)
Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, a lot of parents didn’t really care what their kids did at night as long as they were up for school the next morning. How else to explain the proliferation of teen bands who strode NYC stages, groups like the Speedies, the Stimulators, Bandables, City Lights, and Nastyfacts? The latter were fronted by a black, queer 18-year old named Cheryl Boyze (the oldest member of the band) and their ultra-collectible 3-song EP “Drive My Car” has now been given new life by Left For Dead Records. Unlike her counterparts in X-Ray Spex or the Slits, Boyze didn’t scream. Her delivery was more like Penelope Houston’s in the Avengers, melodic but emphatic. And the band, despite being in their mid-teens or younger, could rock. “Drive My Car,” with its crazy race car sound effects, a sizzling guitar solo, and a killer hook, is positively Buzzcockian in its dynamic melodicism. The song literally races to its screeching finale. “Crazy ‘Bout You” and “Get To You”sizzle too, with sophisticated fretwork up and down the bass, electricifying guitar solos, and – maybe the best part – shouted backup vocals by a cabal of unmistakably pre-pubescent male voices. You need this. Available on vinyl, CD, cassette, and digitally.
2nd Grade makes slight music – short songs, whimsical lyrics, gossamer vocals – that sticks in your head. They wear their influences proudly: Flamin’ Groovies jangle on “Teenage Overpopulation,” the bittersweet irony of Big Star on “Cover Of Rolling Stone,” Brian Wilson harmonies on “Easy Listening.” (And if I’m not mistaken, “Poet In Residence” borrows its chords from Neil Young’s “Don’t Cry No Tears Over Me.”) It’s all bright and bouncy and happy and catchy and just ever-so-slightly familiar, but as Picasso said, artists borrow and geniuses steal. Power-pop rarely gets the respect it deserves, but if this is bubblegum, it’s flavored with saffron and truffles. It takes a lot of work and talent to make music sound this effortless. “Easy Listening“ for us; inspired popcraft from 2nd Grade.
TWO BASE HITS
FAKE LIGHTERS – Missing The Boat (self-released)
This Long Island trio mixes things up on its 7-song release, cranking out relatable pop-punk that mixes in whoa-oh singalong choruses, ska, and melodic hardcore with an early Screeching Weasel vibe. The catchy songs come first, followed by more aggression and thrashiness. As the soundtrack to suburban moshpits, you can do a lot worse. Inspirational verse: “No single record can make my collection complete.”
Pittsburgh’s Nightmarathons prove there’s nothing wrong with shouting every lyric like your life depends on it. Let’s call it Anthemcore, making every song sound like the final encore of an epic set. Go big or get lost, that’s the theme here, and Nightmarathons make it work, throwing in a few instrumental intros and breaks to vary the pace, volume, and tempo and avoid monotony.
THE SENDERS – All Killer, No Filler: 1977-2001 (Left For Dead Records)
As critic Tim Stegall states in his liner notes, “the Senders are the great lost band of New York Punk.” Contemporaries of the Ramones and Blondie, and for a short time bandmates with Johnny Thunders, they stayed the same greasy, leather-jacketed rock ‘n’ roll lifers long after the first-wave of NYC punk either graduated to better things or self-destructed. As the Lower East Side gentrified around them, the Senders stuck to their guns, consistent and persevering – but frankly, not terribly original. (The Fleshtones, who had a similar career, wrote much better songs.) With the band’s musical legacy either out of print or nearly impossible to find, Left For Dead Records has assembled 31 tracks – available as a double-LP, double-CD, or digitally – spanning the Senders’ career and encompassing its entire recorded output, as well as bootleg-quality live recordings (including several from the period when Johnny Thunders moonlighted from the Heartbreakers on guitar.) It’s a bit like finding a pallet of frankfurters outside your door. Everybody likes a hot dog; nobody needs a case of them. For punk archaeologists, diehard collectors, or even the curious, All Killer, No Filler fills a gap in NYC’s rock ‘n’ roll timeline. But listening to this entire collection of samey-sounding rockabilly, Bo Diddley, and garage rips in one sitting feels like sitting through two hours of opening acts waiting for the headliner.