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.
CHARLIE BROWN GETS A VALENTINE – Severance (self-release)
It’s been 20 years since this Baltimore trio’s last release, which makes “Severance” an unanticipated surprise – not to mention a total triumph. On eight riveting tracks, smooth-voiced Jon Moser and throat-shredding Lucas Carscadden (on bass and guitar, respectively) finish each other’s sentences or fire back call-and-response epithets like two halves of a warring id (imagine Jawbreaker if Blake Schwarzenbach had been blessed with a McCartney to his Lennon). Add the powerful but restrained drumming of Costas Nakassis, who also supplies flourishes of piano, horns, and backing vocals, and you’ve got a formula for success. The furious, adult lyrics plumb the depths of wrecked relationships, aging (and the acknowledgement of our own mortality) and the fake promise of nostalgia with a vitriol seldom heard in what’s ostensibly pop-punk. “Is something sticking out my back, is there a twinkle in my eye? Pull it out, shut my yap, apply and hope it dies,” Moser sings on “Rubber Knives.” Even more bitterly, on “Everyone Who Knows You Knows,” Carscadden shrieks, “One day I hope to arrange my life to avoid ever having to speak to anyone like you again, I know everyone who knows you knows the feeling.” Being an angry young man is all well and good. But an angry middle-aged artist not only still has a lot to say, but the talent and experience to deliver it – and I do not use this word lightly – magnificently.
Les Lullies have been rocking their native France for over seven years, but sing primarily in French for the first time on “Mauvaise Foi,” save for a cover of Jackie DeShannon’s Sixties pop confection “When I Walk In The Room.” But language barely matters. One song, I’m told, celebrates “the vital necessity of being shitfaced” at the pub, while another decries gentrification, but what carries the day comes from the band’s music, which recalls that glorious time in the 80s when glam, garage, and power-pop collided to form an irresistible hybrid of punk: Think Eddie & The Hot Rods, The Records, or Boston’s Real Kids. The guitars tickle the ears, distorted but never anything less than ear candy; the rhythms carry you away; it’s all impeccably produced and expertly played and arranged. A feel-good album for a rainy day – or any day, really – “Mauvaise Foi” will have you pumping your fist and singing along even if you don’t know three words of French. C’est magnifique!
This Atlanta trio only gives us three short songs here, two originals and a cover of the Cranberries’ “Salvation;” it’s simply not enough. The EP’s title track bounces along with Buzzcockian energy, while “LBB” has singalong-anthem energy with great dynamics and pacing. The Cranberries cover hews pretty close to the original, speeding up the tempo just a bit and adding more of a 4/4 backbeat. Bottom line, it feels and sounds like a Carolyn song, which is always what you want from a cover. At under six minutes of bouncy, enticing, poppy punk, the Carolyn more than live up to the dictum of always leave ’em wanting more.
Vancouver’s Night Court revealed themselves as talented, eclectic, and prolific punk songsmiths on their first two albums, “Nervous Birds One” and “Too.” Now “Humans” ups the ante even further with 16 tracks of gritty, propulsive rock that borrows from garage, emo, post-punk and – on the singsong, 58-second “Clearcut” or the 68-second “Zero Or Hero?” – even my Jersey boys, The Wrens. Songs can be angular and Wire-y, like “Ladder Ambition,” or slow, sloppy, and sentimental like “Garage Full Of Secrets;” goofy like “Robot Brain” or funny like “So What?” About the only thing every track has in common is brevity. Lots of songs, lots of styles and tempos and riffs, all flying by in less than 2 minutes each, and they cap the whole shebang off with a fun cover of ABBA’s “SOS.” What’s not to like?
TWO BASE HITS
CHINESE JUNK – Flyspray (Big Neck Records)
The self-proclaimed “Kings of Pound Shop Rock” (pound shop is Britain’s dollar store) follow up their debut singles with first full-length “Flyspray,” 14 tracks of trashy lo-fi punk ‘n’ roll influenced by Ramonescore and Queers/Weasel pop punk. Best are the song titles: “I Don’t Know What I Want (But I Know You Ain’t It),” “You Knock My Block Off,” “My Baby Works For Rentakil,” “Ain’t Nobody Payin’ Me To Think.” The longest track clocks in at 2:04, so everything flies by entertainingly. RIYL lots of distortion and fuzzy production with funny, fast songs.
THE SHIRKS – Talk To Action: Singles & Unreleased 2008 – 2013 (Big Neck Records)
I’m not entirely sold on the idea of a retrospective odds ‘n’ sods collection for a band with only a five year history of underground near-obscurity, but here it is. The Shirks, from Washington, DC, play garagey rock’n’roll that recalls some of the DC/Dischord bands that actually managed to inject a groove into hardcore, like what Minor Threat might have morphed into if they had followed the template of “Salad Days” and “Good Guys Don’t Wear White.” If there’s a DC band the Shirks echo, it’s really the Slickee Boys, the garage-rock pioneers of DC punk. So… 20 tracks of catchy rock ‘n with trashy guitars and nimble basslines and steady 4/4 drumming. Nothing I can knock but nothing that’s going to jump up, hit you in the face, and make you think you’ve found your new favorite band.
PHARMA – “See” EP (self-released)
A 5-song 7-inch from four Detroit-area garage-rockers who decided to team up and make a hardcore record. “Stand Or Sit?” starts out like “Fight For Your Right To Party,” but explodes into rapidfire, gravel-throated ramalama fury; the rest of the EP follows suit. I like the irony of a track called “Relax” that’s all fury and tension finding release in screaming ferociousness. The 7-inch comes with a poster insert that would have been better used as a lyric sheet, since I can’t understand a word that frontman Charles Stahl growls and screams, but apparently he’s pretty pissed off about… well, everything. I don’t listen to much hardcore these days but if you do, better you should find catharsis in audio adrenaline like this than, say, putting your fist through a wall or something.
GINO & THE GOONS – Live At VFW Post 39 (self-released)
“We had no plans to record this show,” reports the band. “But it happened.” Veterans of the St. Petersburg punk scene, Gino & The Goons are like a musical black leather jacket; a bit retro, perhaps, but still a viable fashion choice if you have no qualms about being deemed uncool. Drawing from the primordial pre-punk ooze of the Stooges, Dictators and their bluesy, boogie-woogie’ing predecessors, the Goons bang out a dozen garagey tuneful rockers that achieve punkitude largely through attitude. I will suggest, though, that frontmen who repeatedly cajole the crowd to dance or move up closer should probably edit out the stage patter on live records.