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.
Burlington, Ontario’s Penske File have long been seasoned road warriors bringing their feisty singalong pop punk to the world. Singer/guitarist Travis Miles brings an exuberant energy to every lyric, and the band writes great hooks. But if you parse the lyrics and dig a bit deeper into “Half Flow,” there’s a sense of disillusionment and despair under the bounding enthusiasm, bright melodies, and gang vocal harmonies. Eking out a living on the road for years takes a toll; having it all crash and burn because of covid gave the band time to pause and reflect, on their own mortality as well as the state of the world. Opener “Bad Dreams” provides the template for the album: “So turn back on your darkness And look homeward angel/ They say, “you’ve got a bright future,” Too bad it ends tomorrow.” If that doesn’t keep you awake at night, try “We’re Both Still Alive,” which ponders the reckless youthful abandon celebrated on early albums with the sobering question, “can you believe we’re both still alive?” On “Cyanide Stories,” an album highlight, Stiles dissects a toxic relationship, the only upside being that they don’t have to be trapped in it forever: “The father, son and holy ghost/ They don’t talk to me no more/ We danced around like the Brat Sisters/ But we don’t have to stay here anymore.” “Half Flow” may not be the life-affirming joyride of earlier Penske File albums, but it’s a blast to listen to and sobering to consider carefully. Here here.
TWO BASE HITS
chemical-x – “no high hopes, no reserves” EP (self-released)
My dad worked most of his adult life at a place called Kearfott in Little Ferry, NJ, the hometown of these basement-show punks. It didn’t hurt that the EP was recorded, mixed, and mastered by Jersey legend Steve Zing, who’s having a career renaissance these days touring in the Misfits. chemical-x (lowercase only please) look fairly young on Instagram but sound like they could have butted heads with Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front back in CBGB’s heyday. This is old school NJ/HC with no frills or modifications, save perhaps for the tasty guitar solo on “hard for cash.” (They probably got that from Kraut.) The lyrics – like the pummeling drums, thrashy guitars, and declamatory vocals – similarly hearken back to the Eighties. Heck, Youth of Today or 7 Seconds could have written the line “All the same views surrounding me/ Are the ones my parents would agree/ With the way my life’s supposed to be/ But they’re too blind to really see.” Good taste is timeless, as the Holy Modal Rounders told us, and some things never change. Which totally sucks if you’re an adolescent, but not a bad thing if you like this genre of music.
Formed in Austin during the pandemic, the Oxys promptly follow up their 2022 debut with this collection of rousing punk songs flavored with tropes from numerous eras. The snotty vocals and distorted, contrapuntally-chorded guitars shout 90’s pop-punk with a side of 80’s alternative, a big heaping serving of woah-oh-oh’s, and if you dig the 70’s, well, this band is not afraid to whip out what we used to call a “technical” guitar solo now and then (mostly now.) There’s not a bad song in the bunch but nothing I’m going to run back to when I need a hit of this sound. Consider it a long fly ball out, but hey, never underestimate warning track power. Sacrifice flies are RBI’s too.
I’m told that half the fun of Snõõper comes from the live show, replete with puppets, costumes, props, choreography, and lots of audience participation. Never having seen them live, this debut will have to suffice. Lots of awesome, theatrical bands never make it from basement shows to the big-time (in my experience, Alabama’s xbxrx, SC’s Bedlam Hour, and New Brunswick’s Ex Models,) but it certainly can’t hurt to have Jack White sign you, Henry Rollins write your bio, and Pitchfork bless your new record. Although the group (principally, Nashvillean female singer Blair Tramel and guitarist Connor Cummins, augmented here with bass and drums) draws frequent comparisons to Devo (again, probably the live show,) all I hear is speed and silliness. That puts me much more in the mind of early Ween or Adrenalin O.D., although both of them had songs I still remember 40 years later and nothing on this album sticks beyond the one-minute running times.) If they come to town, by all means see the show, but you can skip the download or stream for now.
PUNK ROCK HALL OF FAME
VARIOUS ARTISTS – Godspeed: A Tribute to Pierre Kezdy of Naked Raygun (self-released)
If you’ve never heard Naked Raygun, you’ve missed out on an important piece of punk rock history, especially the Chicago variety. This compilation – featuring Chicago stalwarts like Pegboy, Bollweevils, the Methadones, and Smokin’ Popes’ Josh Caterer, as well as heavyhitters like Face To Face, Hot Water Music, Swingin’ Utters, and Jawbox’ J. Robbins – does a fantastic job of selecting Naked Raygun’s best tracks and delivering them forcefully and honestly. Although Naked Raygun’s initial run coincided with the Reagan era, when America was ostensibly at peace, quite a few of the band’s best tracks had military overtones, a hangover from a generation that grew up with Vietnam on TV every night: “Soldier’s Requieum,” “Rat Patrol,” “Treason,” “Home Of The Brave,” and “Surf Combat” tackle the themes of militarism and patriotism with intelligence and unstoppable energy, alongside other standouts like “Vanilla Blue” and the anthemic “Wonder Beer.” Underground bands like the Usuals, Grey Trash Aliens, the Turdles, and Stress Dreams get a shot too, and everyone pretty much sticks to the script, delivering the tracks the way Naked Raygun played them. Raygun bassist Pierre Kezdy died of cancer in 2020 and all of the proceeds from this release will be donated to his family, so don’t just stream this; go out and buy a copy or at least pay for a download.
Horseplay Leads to Tribute Albums: A Tribute To Cletus (Wellsville Records)
You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of Cletus. They were Johnny Puke’s band in the Ninties, and it’s possible you’ve never heard of him as anything but the guy whose apartment G.G. Allin died in. The band formed in Tennessee, relocated to Charleston, SC, and recorded for small labels like Johann’s Face and Mutant Pop, but their three albums rank among the best pop punk of the era. I should add in the interest of full disclosure that Johnny is an old friend and I was lucky enough to see Cletus a few times, both back in their heyday and at reunion shows, and they did not disappoint. Puke’s hilarious lyrics took potshots at a host of dysfunctional girls, one song catchier and wittier than the last, but what truly set Cletus above their peers were guitarist Kevin Lewey’s precise riffs and hooks. (Lewey committed suicide in 1997, leading Puke to spend years raising money for suicide prevention groups at annual birthday shows.) The songs haven’t lost a bit of their bite or charm, especially the ones about dysfunctional ex-girlfriends: “8 Ways I Hate You,” “Amy Left Me For Some Emo Guy,” “Evelyn’s On Heroine,” and “Christine’s A Lesbian” to name a few. Other highlights include Cletus’ paean to “Beer,” love songs like “Emily,” the generational anthems “Turn Off Your Radio” and “Product,” and the song I want sung at my funeral, “When I’m Gone.” The bands here range from you-might-know-them (Doc Hopper, TA-80, the Automatics, J. Prozac, Mikey Erg) to underground bands from the Wellsville roster. Every version here does the original justice, with a special nod to Stewart Jones, who slows down “Evelyn’s On Heroin” with an acoustic folk-punk treatment that brings out the poignancy hiding under the putdowns (“she’s pathetic but I miss her so.”) Cletus’ three albums (Horseplay Leads To Tragedy; Grease, Grits & Gravy, and Protein Packed) are all available on streaming platforms and worth a listen.