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 Bouncing Souls feed off their audience – spiritually as well as financially – more than most bands. A Bouncing Souls show is a singalong from start to finish; the audience is as much a part of the show as the band. So when COVID left the Souls unable to tour, the group reached out to its fanbase through Patreon and starting writing songs on demand for a small fee. What they learned about the lives of their fans (and the role the Souls play in them) are reflected in these songs culled from that experience. The first Bouncing Souls album in eight years find that the 30-year old quartet hasn’t lost a step. Usually, sticking to a songwriting formula becomes a liability after time, but the Bouncing Souls have perfected writing Bouncing Souls songs to a science, and every track here boasts those big anthemic singalong choruses and a feel-good energy the band should patent. Kevin Seconds contributes vocals on a few tracks, but lead singer Greg Attonito has never been in better voice, Bryan Kienlen’s bass throbs and percolates through these songs like a lead instrument, and guitarist Pete Steinkopf delivers riff after catchy riff, bringing the energy of a teenage hardcore band but filtered through a deep sophisticated understanding of the genre gleaned from decades of hard work. Whether you’re a longtime Souls fan or new to the band, this one’s a keeper.
One of the few bright spots of the COVID pandemic came when the always irreverent but disarmingly perceptive Too Much Joy released “Mistakes Were Made” out of nowhere after a 25 year hiatus. Now they’re back, with a baker’s dozen of new tracks crowdfunded by fans eager for more of the band’s sincere goofiness. As the title suggests, this album has a theme: Pent-up frustrations (“We Yell At 8,”) guilt and regrets (“What Pricks We Were,”) the downside of nostalgia (“Old Friends Make Me Sad,” “Normal Never Was,”) even suicidal ideation (“The Call Of The Void.”) All of it, thankfully, is played for laughs – yes, even suicide – and it’s all catchy and jangly, deftly arranged and impeccably performed. I suspect you’ll find Too Much Joy filed under Power Pop or Indie Rock at the record store, but hey, they reissued the title track as “All These CENSORED Feelings” so Spotify would post it. And what does “punk” mean if not skewering sacred cows, giving the finger to polite society, and serving up our failures, hypocrisies and faults as fodder for catchy, self-aware tunes? Too Much Joy are plenty punk for me.
PHONEBOY – Moving Out (self-released)
This drummerless trio from Hoboken, NJ is halfway through a national tour as this is posted, which for a band with no label, no national press, no radio play and almost no press is pretty damn punk rock. Musically, Phoneboy play an exuberant band of catchy, upbeat, singalong emo-pop which, despite two guitars, relies heavily on synthesizers. Phoneboy’s secret weapon are the harmony-soaked vocals, layered and brilliantly arranged and driving the earwig melodies. Despite fully owning a debt to the Midwestern emo of two decades ago, Phoneboy don’t whine about broken hearts or – as was often too often true of their influences – act like they’re afraid of girls. In fact, Phoneboy write anthems for Gen Z better than almost anyone else I can think (short of Taylor Swift or Lizzo.) These are song about getting out of college (the band formed at Hoboken’s Stevens Institute of Technology) and realizing you’re not ready to be an adult, so part of it’s nostalgia and part of it’s panic about facing an uncertain future. And it’s all captivating. If they come to your town, see them, or you may be shelling out big bucks to Ticketmaster for a floor seat at the local arena the next time they come around.
The (NYU-based) Van Pelt debuted in 1996 with an album full of “catchy riffs and anthems,” as described by frontman Chris Leo. Given that it was 1996, the band was immediately besieged with major label offers which were firmly rejected; the Van Pelt then made a second album eschewing all those catchy riffs and anthems and broke up almost immediately. That might have been the end of the story but in 2014, the band reunited to promote a reissue and found that time, wisdom, and a bit of financial independence had healed old wounds. The group began working on a new album, and nine years later (thanks to the time off afforded by the pandemic,) here it finally is. “Artisans And Merchants” arrives at a time when quite a few popular and trendy British bands have reignited interest in Chris Leo’s style of spoke/sung vocals, which ironically makes this angular, edgy post-punk seem fresh and new and not like a cake that’s been left in the oven for the last nine years. Also, Chris Leo (Ted’s kid brother) is a funny guy and the lyrics bear witness to that. Highlights include the self-referential “Punk House,” the self-deprecating “Did We Hear The Same Song,” and “Grid,” wherein the Van Pelt finally rediscovers its catchy riffs and anthems.
If you’re a fan of what I like to call “Festcore” (referring to the umpteen gruff, bearded, and flannel-clad punk bands who play Gainseville’s The Fest every year,) meet Singing Lungs from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Their sophomore album adds more melody, introspection, and moderate tempos to the mix, and throttles back on the more discordant, rapidfire elements of their debut; pick your poison, but I prefer this. While never sounding derivative, “Coming Around” may put you in mind of Husker Du, the Replacements, early Soul Asylum, and bands of that ilk, and as Martha Stewart might say, that is a good thing.
TWO BASE HITS
SECRET MACHINES – The Moth, The Lizard, And The Secret Machines (self-released)
The pandemic, for all the harm it caused (especially in the arts,) did give everyone a chance to take a breather and find the time to revisit unfinished projects. The Van Pelt album offers one example, and this Secret Machines album – started and abandoned in 2010 but dusted off and completed in 2020 – another. Sandwiched between the band’s self-titled 2008 release and 2020’s “Awake In The Brain Chamber,” both straightforward verse/chorus/verse noisy rock, the songs here were written in a real-time experiment with a more improvisational feel. The result? Still clattering indie rock, but more expansive, more psychedelic; some of it gets a bit too spacey, shoegazey, or jammy, but other tracks offer concise melodies and solid beats. The thickly layered guitars and synths, which form myriad textures and counter-melodies, remain ear-grabbing throughout.
87 AND THE TOYS – “The Smile Room” EP (self-released)
Drummer Hana Irie is Japanese-American, frontman Patrick Luckett is half Japanese, and that heritage adds a definite nippanese influence to 87 And The Toys’ 6-song EP. Imagine Yoko crashing a B-52’s recording session and you get an idea of this unique melding of quirky indie pop, yelping vocals, and melodramatic vignettes. “Tremon Street” has a sinewy Richard Hell vibe while set-closer “Aitai” (twice as long as the other tracks) proves that power ballads remain cheesy whether sung in Japanese or English. Skip that last track and you’ve got an entertaining ball of fluff here.