Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Slow Faction - Under Heavy Manners

Now more than ever, we really need bands that aspire to change the world. So why do I generally find the social justice warrior bands of the moment so off-putting? I think I got the answer from the fine writer Ged Babey - who addressed that very topic in his wonderful review of Slow Faction's new mini-album Under Heavy Manners. These sorts of bands, Babey writes, "can come over as a bit dull, worthy and predictable and lapse into cliche very easily." That's a truly bang-on assessment. I, like Babey, am so taken with London's Slow Faction precisely because they are none of those things. They approach their songwriting with intelligence, insight, and a genuine spark of musical excitement. When it comes to politically aware and socially minded punk rock, it's still The Clash and Stiff Little Fingers that set the bar for me. These were bands with very important things to say - but they were great punk rock bands first and foremost. Slow Faction has taken up their fight in the present-day, and I can't think of many current punk bands I like better. Just listen to the band's 2016 track "Woody Guthrie", and immediately you will understand the need for music to remain a vital instrument of social change.

Under Heavy Manners is exactly what I desire in political punk music: classic '77 style sounds, with lyrics relevant to the current state of the world. Of course the message is meant to be heeded, but there's nothing secondary about those massive choruses, hard-driving guitars, and well-crafted tunes. Lyrically the band takes a good, hard look at what has gone wrong with the world and the unfortunate direction in which we're headed as a human race. These songs turn their gaze upon the masses who are so caught up in consumerist comforts and obsessions with empty culture that they turn blind eyes to the waging of war for profit and the erosion of their own civil liberties. It's hard to deny that such a depiction hits the nail on the head - on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. But Slow Faction's aim is not to point fingers - it's to confront the truth and find solutions. Harrowing as they might be, songs like "59 Minutes Past 11" and "The Definition of Madness" are essentially wake-up calls. We may be doomed, or we may not be doomed. But if nothing changes, it's surely going to be the former.

At just six tracks, Under Heavy Manners is a lean and urgent affair worthy of a spot on your CD shelf next to many of the albums that inspired it. The title track- the closest thing I've heard to 1979/80 era Stiff Little Fingers in years - kicks off the album like a ball of fire. "59 Minutes Past 11" is a bona fide sound of the streets anthem a la Sham 69 or the Angelic Upstarts. The hot-burning reggae of "There's A War Going On" will do nothing to dissuade further Clash and SLF comparisons (I don't think the band will complain). "In Your God's Name", a song I fondly recall from its demo version, sounds anthemic and positively rousing in its finished form.

Can one band, on its own, change the world? Of course not. But bands can inspire people. And people, collectively, are capable of making a great difference. Under Heavy Manners is full of songs that are just bound to get you fired up. Let it be the inspiration of many who choose to resist the clampdown.



Monday, September 18, 2017

Role Models - Dance Moves

Following two consecutive appearances on my year-end top ten albums list, Role Models are going for the hat trick with their latest and greatest effort Dance Moves. Releasing three albums in three years is a momentous feat in and of itself. It's all the more impressive that Rich Rags and company have managed to top themselves with each subsequent release. It would have been perfectly acceptable at this point for Role Models to still be resting on the laurels of 2015's The Go-To Guy. But thankfully, that is not what has occurred. With the support of its fans and the PledgeMusic platform, the London foursome set out to keep the music coming. On the heels of last year's remarkable Forest Lawn, the brand-new Dance Moves cements Rich's place in the top-tier of present-day rock songwriters. It's certainly a fine place to start if you're still unfamiliar with his formidable talents.

What I appreciate about Dance Moves is that it continues the growth of its two predecessors without losing sight of what Rich does best as a songwriter. He can still write a rocking pop song with the best of 'em, and he sure won't leave you wanting for strong melodies and memorable choruses. But on Dance Moves, he delivers his strongest and by far most varied collection of songs. I can genuinely say that every song sounds different. That makes the album really enjoyable because I look forward to each track and what it brings to the whole. No doubt, songs like "I Want More" and "Covered In Mistakes" are signature Rich Rags power pop tunes that I totally expected and was happy to hear. But what makes Dance Moves so satisfying is that the totally unexpected songs are among the best on the album. Sometimes bands will tack ballads onto the ends of records, but here "Obituary Writer" is so wonderful and essential to the feel of the album that it doesn't sound out of place in the track 4 position. Did you know that Rich could pull off snappy blue-eyed soul ("Feel Like Being Alone") or chic modern rock ("Empire State")? Me either! We probably all knew that Rich had a soft spot for radio-friendly '70s/'80s hard rock but might not have foreseen him indulging it on a Role Models recording. Yet he does exactly that with the 1-2 AOR punch of "Reach Me" and "The Night". I can't listen to the latter without imagining a packed arena full of people singing along to the chorus, cigarette lighters aloft.

I like that Dance Moves tells a story. In the words of Rich Rags, it follows "a binge weekend with someone who has a lot to forget (or remember)." Such a concept demands a particular range of emotions that this set of songs amply provides. Thus the album takes you from the quiet melancholy of "Evangeline" to the celebratory swagger of "Manette Street" to the raging angst of "Dance Moves" to the triumphant power of "The Meteor". Rich and the boys really went for it on this album, and their risks have been fully rewarded. This is a record that the band probably couldn't have made two or three years ago. With the help of some special surprise guests (like Rich Jones, Duncan Reid, and F & L favorite Kris Rodgers), Role Models have made an album that's their finest to date and without question one of this year's best. I recommend it not just to power pop and glam/punk fans but really to anyone who appreciates great music!



Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Trampoline Team/MAMA - split 7"

So I have gone from a flurry of posts in July and August to very sparse activity in September. With school work again consuming most of my free time, the blog updates will likely be infrequent for a while. I do have a couple of album reviews (Role Models, The Safes) in the works, but they may take some time. With that in mind, I wanted to do a quick write-up on a release that a lot of you should be very interested in. Both MAMA and Trampoline Team are bands I've raved about recently. They've gotten together for a limited split 7" on Giveaway Records - a release that does not disappoint! I like that these two bands are very different yet still make an ideal pairing for a split. MAMA's two tracks are exactly what you'd expect: thundering '70s style arena rock with dual guitar leads and radio-worthy hooks. It's impossible for me to listen to "Double Trouble" and not imagine it blasting from the 8-track tape deck of a 1978 Camaro. Trampoline Team counters with a pair of tracks that are right up there with the songs from its recent 7" (the best punk rock single of the year, in my opinion). A title like "Headless Cock" sure promises a lot. And let me tell you, the song does not come up short! A la the band's previous hit "Drug Culture", this track comes on with exuberant dual vocals, great snotty lyrics, and an old school punk sound that's catchy yet totally ballsy. "Scrap Addiction" - reminiscent of the Ramones and Angry Samoans, is another infectious toe-tapper from this powerhouse New Orleans trio. 

Limited to just 100 copies, this split is available from MAMA's Bandcamp while supplies last. This will be the only vinyl appearance for MAMA's two contributions to the split. If you're just interested in the digital tracks, Giveaway Records has this split available as a free download at its Bandcamp. MAMA and Trampoline Team are two of the best bands out there right now. So I recommend you track down not just this split but also everything else both bands have released!



Thursday, September 7, 2017

Single Premiere: The Cheap Cassettes - "Hieroglyphics In Lipstick"

When one of your favorite bands approaches you with the somewhat unusual idea of doing a combination premiere and review of its new single, how can you say no?! Believe it or not, this is the first actual single from The Cheap Cassettes - who've been a band since the early part of the decade. After self-releasing their debut album in 2014 and working with Rum Bar Records on a reissue earlier this year, Chaz, Kevin, and Izzy were certainly raring to get back into the studio and cut some new tracks. And cut some new tracks they did - at the world famous Egg Studios in Seattle with the legendary Kurt Bloch producing! From those sessions came "Hieroglyphics In Lipstick" and "Worse N' Better" - out today as a digital release and a limited edition cassette single. Without a doubt, The Cheap Cassettes have never sounded better!

It had been so long since The Cheap Cassettes had recorded new material that I wondered what to expect. There was always the possibility that the band might have changed its musical style to black metal or abandoned all use of guitars in favor of kazoos. I feared such horrors as experimentation with dubstep and a random guest appearance by Ed Sheeran. Much to my delight, no such developments came to be. Both of these tracks are right in the band's sweet spot: marvelous hook-driven pop with a rootsy charm and real honest-to-goodness power behind it. This is exactly what we have come to expect ever since Chaz and Kevin began their musical partnership back in the early 2000s.  "Hieroglyphics In Lipstick" and "Worse N' Better" are power pop by its truest definition. Yet with Chaz's songwriting so indelibly informed by punk rock and early American rock n' roll, The Cheap Cassettes don't sound like a power pop group you've heard 100 times before. And I must say that these tunes are top-notch! Being one who can never get enough of hard pop with a bittersweet taste, I am totally enamored with "Hieroglyphics In Lipstick". It contains some of Chaz's finest lyrics ever - and one of his catchiest melodies as well. "Worse N' Better" is every bit as good and could easily have been the "A" side. It pretty much has it all: a super-tough riff, hooks I can't get out of my head, and a guitar solo so wicked good that even a master shredder like Bloch couldn't help expressing his admiration.

Two more songs from the Egg sessions will be released next year as a vinyl single. In the meantime, I am delighted to present these two latest pop gems to the world at large! With sharp-looking artwork courtesy of Anna and Kevin Parkhurst, the "cassingle" version of this release is well worth seeking out. It's time to pull your boombox and Walkman out of deep storage! Only 50 copies are available. So act quickly if you'd like to own some Cheap Cassettes on, uh, cheap cassette!



Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Cheap Trick review series: Next Position Please

Review by Mike Kimmel

Why oh why oh why did I not realize what a great album this was when I first heard it in 1983?!

Produced by Todd Rundgren and basically panned (given two out of five stars) by Rolling Stone Magazine, as a die-hard Cheap Trick fan for six years already I owned it as soon as it came out. I'm still not sure what I think of Todd Rundgren. I mean, just because the guy qualifies as a creative genius doesn't mean you have to appreciate his talent, not necessarily enjoy his work.

Some of his stuff I like and some not-so-much. You can, however, detect his presence immediately as far as his involvement in this release. One only need pay attention to some of the seriously odd sounds interspersed throughout (need I remind you that Rundgren did a song called "Onomatopoeia" on one of his albums years ago).

Or we could just dial in on the extreme Beatle-esque, uh, Beatle-esqueness of many of the tunes on the release; another indelible Rundgren touch. Not a complaint about it at all. Cheap Trick has never made any bones about their Liverpudlian influences.

The release opens with one of my favorite Cheap Trick tunes – "I Can't Take It". At that point, it was the only tune thus far that Robin Zander alone authored. Though it flopped as a single, it's remained a favorite live over the years. It hasn't been nudged from my Cheap Trick playlist, either.

"Borderline" sounds like it could be on a movie soundtrack. Heck, it might have been, as far as I know. It's another really good, mid-tempo, all-Cheap Trick tune.

A play on words and the Zander vocal echo-fade that never gets old for me is up next with "I Don’t Love Here Anymore". It describes a romance that was fantastic at the start, but now "…You don't want to play by the rules. I don't want to love here anymore."

I'm still enjoying the weirdness of the title track from Next Position Please. Incongruous lyrics like "Read between the lines, learn a new message. Read the latest book. It's a new twist. Be the first one to have a new idea. You'll never get bored with mirrors on the ceiling". Right into the chorus of "Next position, please. Do I have to get down on my knees. Next position, please. I'm in a hurry, so hurry please".

In typical Cheap Trick fashion, a slight alteration of the words occurs in a later chorus when instead of "Do I have to get down on my knees?" changes to "You'll have to get down on your knees".

"Younger Girls" is a variation on Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little 16" – an ode to younger girls that predated the Cheap Trick version by 20 or 30 years and certainly not the only track to ever express this…sentiment.

"Feels so good, whoo! Let me in. I might jump right outta my skin. Don't you ever grow up, little girl. Sweet young thing. You're not so innocent."

"Don't Make Our Love a Crime" has Zander talking about wanting to be "caught" with his significant other in the tune. Shortly after he wants "…to be blamed with you," then "…I wanna be pawns with you."

"3D" is where Todd Rundgren's involvement really shows up, in my opinion. He's not the only professional recording artist to have been influenced by the Fab Four (not by a LONG shot)! The part that screams Rundgren to me is the number of odd effects, most of them applied to vocals in this track. It's not out of place.

It doesn't even sound questionable – it's just identifiable. It's a stamp Rundgren applies to a lot of his work. Just like Bob Ezrin's "stamp" helped Alice Cooper and KISS rock and Jack Douglas "stamped" Aerosmith, some Cheap Trick, Montrose, and others, almost like a Billy Gibbons guitar lick. Immediately attributable.

"You Talk Too Much" threatens about everyone. "Dear father, don't mother me. Dear mother, don't bother me. If I ever needed your advice I would have called you on the telephone. I've only been wrong maybe once or twice and that's when I was listening to you."

"Dear preacher, you won't reach me. Dear teacher, don't preach to me."

"You talk too much. You talk too much. You talk too much to me. Aww shut up!"

Cheap Trick reasoning at its absolute finest!

"Y.O.Y.O.Y." is another good Cheap Trick love song. Most of their stuff in this area is either very good or fairly humorous (on purpose). The difference here is that this tune is GREAT! I can't help it. You'll just have to listen to it.

"Won't Take No for an Answer" is really an early British Invasion (if you get my aversion to continuing to cite The Beatles) sounding track through the verses. The chorus? Maybe not so much. "Wait just a minute. You're a little lost. Things keep on changing. And so does the cost."

"Hey, Mister Sister (?), leave me alone. Today kids don't grow up – they just grow old." Even 33+ years after it was released, it's still such an accurate indictment in so many areas.

Rolling Stone's reviewer cited the next song in particular in his semi-scathing review. To be fair, he ripped Cheap Trick as well as ripping Todd Rundgren. But I really think the accusations were unfounded. He complains that the chorus of "Heaven's Falling" was predictable, and it was not intended as a compliment.

First, I really don't see it. Next, so what? Finally, have you ever gone to the movies with someone who was constantly saying things like "Oh that's just not possible!" or 'That'd never happen in a million years!"? My response to them as well as that reviewer is "Do you view/listen to art to be entertained or to be convinced?" Personally, I've always thought that entertainment's purpose was to entertain.

I guess I could be wrong.

"Invaders of the Heart" "…are messing with my mind. Invaders of the heart can make your heart blind." It starts out with several strange-ish start/stop things working on vocals, guitars, and drums. And about halfway through the song, someone (might be Zander, but it sounds kinda like Tom Petersson to me – which is odd, because Jon Brandt plays bass on the album – this was the period during which Tom Petersson had left the band) counts to 30. Another fun tune.

Take a brief run back to earlier Trick days feel with "You Say Jump". "You've got a one track mind. Wish you could just read mine. I hope you will in time." The song feels something like "I Want You to Want Me" with its sort of staccato drum and guitar delivery.

The boys from Rockford do one remake on the release, which is "Dancing the Night Away".

That's it for the original release. Some years later, Cheap Trick made an "authorized" version with a different song order and two additional tunes: "Twisted Heart" and "Don't Hit Me with Love".

"Twisted Heart" starts with a really eerie beat, screeching, broken Zander vocals, and background guitars/bass/keyboard-that-sounds-like-a-pipe-organ. Another unexpectedly good song that I didn't realize existed until I started this write-up. I mean, upon double-checking my inventory, I found that it does appear on the Sex, America, Cheap Trick collection. My fault for not listening, I s'pose.

Finally, the second of the two additional tracks added to the re-release is "Don't Hit Me with Love". It starts out with what sounds like a group of grade school kids counting down from five – as in "Lift off!" – followed by (I think) "Young astronauts… YAY!" Then it's a good, simple rocker.

"Don't try the one thing I'm so afraid of. Don't hit me, hit me, hit me, hit me, hit me. Don't hit me with love."

"But your eyes don't lie. They kick the shit outta me."

The lyrics, as always, are cool, the music is great, the selection is varied. Most of all, as with ALL things Cheap Trick, you have to watch and/or listen to the very end. You never know when you're going to miss something added where you just might not expect it.

-Mike Kimmel

Monday, August 28, 2017

Please Stop! - Power Suit and Dead Bodies

With a debut 7" out on the ever-dependable No Front Teeth Records, Minnesota's Please Stop! ought to be on the radar of anyone on the lookout for some in-your-face punk rock. Veterans of the modern-day Midwest punk scene, lead singer StaySee and guitarist Danimal have formed Please Stop! with  bassist Cheetah and drummer Reckless Jane Danger. Power Suit and Dead Bodies jams eight songs onto one little slab of vinyl - delivering the literal bang for your buck that we've come to expect from the best hardcore punk 7"s. As the title suggests, these songs tackle some pretty dark subject matter. StaySee, a first-class punk screamer, has a knack for bringing out everything that's troubling, uncomfortable, or straight-up bleak about these lyrics. Behind her the band lays down a properly punishing attack. Danimal's guitar sounds super raw and totally punches you in the face. And that rhythm section can thump with the best of 'em. All-out rippers like "Let's Hear It" and "Paint Them Up" hit hard and fast, annihilating all that's in their path. But on the "longer" (meaning somewhere north of a minute and a half!) tracks, the band shows a range beyond light speed hardcore. Whether it's the thunderous sludge of "Sweetie", the dark surf tones of "High Horse", or the barely restrained menace of "Bites", there's plenty here to demonstrate that Please Stop! are far more than a one-trick-pony. "Bites", as a matter of fact, is the one track that I keep going back to. It's one of those songs that just grabs you by the throat. "You should come with a warning," hollers StaySee. "'I bite, I bite, I bite.' You should know this about me - I bite, I bite back!" Never has a vocal sounded more believable!

Both vinyl and digital editions of Power Suit and Dead Bodies are available for purchase at Please Stop!'s Bandcamp. Those who support the group on Bandcamp will receive three bonus tracks as well. One of those is "I've Never Seen That", a delightfully thrashing number inspired by one of the great cinematic masterpieces of all-time: The 'Burbs. I highly recommend going all-in and getting your figurative mitts on the bonus tracks. No one has a better ear for what's good in punk music than Marco at No Front Teeth. This debut from Please Stop! keeps the NFT hot streak very much in tact! 



Friday, August 25, 2017

Retro Reviews: The Vice Principals – After School With...

Review by Rob Sheley

The (sorta) lost record or the prospect that never was fully realized, After School With the Vice Principals was released in August of 2000 on Sympathy For The Record Industry, only two years after the Humpers ended. The upside is the band included Scott Deluxe Drake, Billy Burks, and for the first time officially playing with Scott, his brother Jeff Drake (from The Joneses). The downside is that this is all that exists from this magical union of the brothers Drake.

If you have Scott & Billy in your band, it's gonna sound something like the Humpers. This band was no different, but it did expand upon their sound and songwriting with Jeff in the band. Jeff brought a more '60s Stones vibe to the band; specifically the band drew from Between The Buttons (check out "Miss Amanda Jones", "Complicated", & "Let's Spend The Night Together"). Take that '60s pop sound the Stones created mixed with the fury of the later Humpers, and you get a pretty good feel for what the Vice Principals created.

The record is a flamethrower, clocking in at 33 minutes with only two of the 12 songs clearing three minutes (very Ramones style). The album opens with a cover of "Jack the Ripper" by the great Screamin' Lord Sutch, and Scott Drake is spitting fire. Peppered in are back-up vocals delivered by his brother. Moving through the record, the original songs are of the quality you would expect from what would have been the Humpers record following Euphoria, Confusion, Anger And Remorse. "When Girls Collide", "Hostility", and "Satellite Dish" are a 1-2-3 punch in the gut of Long Beach punk rock & roll. "Splitsville USA" sung by Jeff Drake is a nice break in the action. That is not to say that the track is slow, weak, or a throwaway. It is merely a welcomed break in the pace of a relentless record. Be it due to timing or purpose, in addition to "Jack The Ripper", the record adds a few more choice covers to broaden the band's palette. All are delivered in the band's signature sound, devoid of the originals' sound or arrangement. "Price Of Love" (Everly Bros) and "Glad All Over" (Dave Clark Five) show the depth of the Vice Principals' record collections. And despite having a Rolling Stones influence, it was nice to not have one of their songs on the record. They also included a reworking of an older Scott Drake composition from his pre-Humpers band Suicide Kings. Originally recorded in 1990, "Switchblade" and the rest of the record were never touched as song options for this or the Humpers. But the sound wasn't that far off of what you know as the band's distinctive sound. It was nice to see this resurrected to a wider audience. It is a shame they didn't mine some of the other tracks from that release for this project.

The Vice Principals were so very short lived (two, maybe three years) and never did a country wide tour. The only other recorded output by the band was a lone 7" "Wolfman Amadeus Jackboot" b/w "Showdown" (Archie Bell & the Drells cover). That's it. But if you don't have them, get 'em both. They are killer thru & thru. Scott went on to do two solo records before forming The Lovesores. Sadly, Billy Burks and Jeff Drake have yet to resurface in additional projects.

-Rob Sheley