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 second solo album from the Jawbox/Burning Airlines frontman J. Robbins began life during the pandemic with a few friends who – testing negative, wearing masks, and going crazy with cabin fever – were able to develop these songs in the studio. A second session in 2022 fleshed out the lineup. Besides adding electronic elements not heard in previous work, “Basilisk” has an immediacy and urgency that’s nothing short of electrifying. Robbins is writing for himself here, not to fit the style of a band. And while he’s always been an keenly intelligent and articulate songwriter, there’s a laser sharp focus to these tracks, whether singing about personal tumult (“Automaticity”) or the existential danger to democracy posed by January 6 (“Last War”). The guitars here (including an invigorating cameo from Naked Raygun’s John Haggerty) will thrill any diehard alt-rock aficionado, but “Old Soul” offers a gentler and more contemplative side of Robbins’ talent. Then there are “Sonder” and “Dead Eyed God,” which trade rock clang for meditative, ambient soundscapes.
WEAPON EYES – Phantom Power (self-released)
Greg Matherly, one time New Yorker now residing in Bumfuck, TN, recorded this weird but intriguing 6-song EP in his home studio. Greg is an old friend but I don’t understand why he or other artists open with an instrumental if that’s not their gig. Once the intro’s over and the vocals come in on “Common Misconception,” you begin to get a sense of Weapon Eyes: spoken/sung vocals with a bit of a Southern twang, motorik rhythms, silky guitar solos over electronic percussion, and a bed of synths. You can hear the influence of Wire and the Velvets percolating on droney “How’s About That?”, there’s an unexpected infusion of 60’s pop (ala’ Shangri-La’s) complete with church bells on “Panic.” “King Jest,” sung from the perspective of a man about to be hanged, brings appropriate solemnity to the proceedings and Matherly (or Weapon Eyes) doubles down on the Velvets drone on the hypnotizing closer, “Trap Doors.” Although not in their league, RIYL Feelies and Yo La Tengo.
This East Coast supergroup of sorts features Joe Gittleman of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, drummer Michael McDermott of Bouncing Souls, with Sammy Kay (lead vocals, guitar and keyboards) and J Duckworth (lead guitar, percussion). The four-song EP (with a bonus dub mix) treads an interesting space between reggae and punk which never quite evolves into ska. Kay wins MVP here both for his gravelly and heartfelt vocals but also the layers of keyboards which give the tracks something of a Detroit soul feel. Mix that with the Jamaican rhythms makes for a powerful groove. “Can’t Be Beat” erupts into a big singalong chorus (the Bouncing Souls influence?) while “Who Am I (to say)” percolates with punky aplomb while never losing its laidback island groove. “America in Black and White” hearkens back to reggae’s political roots, delivering a diatribe about race in the US with pulsating rhythms and slinky synths. Crazy Baldhead contributes dub remix of “Who Am I.” I don’t see Gittleman and McDermott giving up their day job, but this is a side project worth continuing.
THE PROBLEMS WITH KIDS TODAY – Born To Rock (self-released)
Oof. That band name and album title promise a lot but one good look reveals it’s tongue in cheek. Frontman “The Great” Tate Brooks looks like the offspring of Urge Overkill and Weird Al, ably accompanied by Silas “The Slayer” Lourenco on bass and “Rock N Roll” Reena Yu banging the skins. Brooks sings/shouts everything like a young Henry Rollins without the testosterone (or an amped up Jonathan Richman), although 60s garage-rock also figures heavily in the mix. To their credit, these young’uns can play; excellent riffage and groovy basslines abound. The problem with The Problems With Kids Today is that they don’t seem to have much to say, other than singing about being young and frustrated, and everything winds up kinda sounding the same.
WHOREMONES – “Hydrangea” EP (self-released)
Angry post-hardcore (with an unmistakable Zep influence) from a teenaged L.A. quartet fronted by the beguiling and sultry Pascale Dominique, channeling the ghosts of Grace Slick and Ann Wilson but with a feminist/queer approach. A driving bass fuels “On The Floor,” providing Pasquale an opportunity to
scream and screech as well as belt out her lyrics, “Skiing Trip” is just one long, driving, pissed off screed, “Rich Cunt” ranges from seductive cooing to spastic fury. Inspirational verse: “You ask if you’re abusive / I say no / you’re just sick and bored.”
SOMERSET MEADOWS – Recycle Your Dreams (Brain Genius Records)
The band hails from Portland, OR, not Somerset, NJ; the name comes from lead singer “Sir” Richard Somerset. Recorded just before the onset of the pandemic, “Recycle Your Dreams” sat for a very long time at the vinyl pressing plant. I wish they’d posted the lyrics online because they’re a bit hard to make out, even with headphones, but seem worthy of closer scrutiny. Like Michael Stipe, Somerset’s mumbles communicate emotion, and the band follows in kind, with distinctive lead and rhythm guitars and simple, solid drumming. There’s a slacker, millennial malaise that hangs over much of the album, with some peppier and faster (but not really “happy”) songs. Even on “Transcoded Martian Transmission,” the message from outer space is that life might suck “but it will be all right.” Interestingly, there are both studio and live tracks, which makes more sense on vinyl (with a “studio” and a “live” side). If interested, the title track is the place to start.
BONES & JONES – “In Blue” EP (self-released)
“Need It” is a better Strokes track than anything the Strokes have released in a decade, but the antipodean quintet Bones & Jones actually hail from the Victoria coast. “Every Morning” and “Simple Passion” bring an orchestral country feel, while “In Ya Nature,” with its swelling synths and multi-tracked vocals, sounds both contemporary and indelibly New Wave. But speaking as someone who was riding the Strokes train before it even left the station, “Need It” gets a big thumbs up.
This is the third single from South Jersey dad-rockers TV Sound of this series and it’s by far the punkiest of the bunch. TV Sound have always been retro rockers at heart, unafraid to show their influences; they just have a lot of influences. Here, they quote Nick Lowe (or is it Kurt Vonnegut) on “So It Goes,” which fuses the bright guitars of Stiff Records with the Who-ish (or maybe Jam-ish) power chords and throttling drums. “Do Be Good” slows down the tempo for a power ballad with a nod to Tom Petty at his most Dylanesque.