And business is good, whether your thing is punk, power pop, garage rock, rockabilly, glam, action rock, and their various spinoffs and offshoots. Our guarantee to you: no Nickelback allowed. Go HERE to read Dr. Denim’s first installment of the series, and HERE for Pt. 2. Above: No, that’s not the Runaways ya dummy – it’s Heavy Tiger, gettin’ ready for some heavy pettin’. (FYI: links to key audio and video tracks follow the main text.)
BY MICHAEL “DENIM” TOLAND
Wyldlife smartly has a boot in two camps. Based in NYC, the band has a firm grounding in the glammy proto punk and roughhewn power pop that emanated from its city back in the ‘70s. When it came time to record its second full-length, however, the group decamped to Atlanta, home of rising pop & roll saviors Biters and their brethren, and the joie de vivre of recording in a sympathetic environment certainly makes its impression. Out On Your Block (Wicked Cool) doesn’t so much veer from one stylistic variation to another so much as cram them together, powering the singalong choruses of “Keepsake” and “Bandita” with the reckless energy of a Mercer Arts Center freakout. The band zooms through the tracks like its members mistook amphetamines for sugar pills in their morning coffee, but never sound out of control – tight but loose in the grand rock & roll tradition. Sounding for all the world like a mind meld of the New York Dolls and the Plimsouls, Out On Your Block reeks with the pure joy of taking smartly crafted tunes and making a big-ass racket.
Seattle’s Cheap Cassettes apply similar makeup to their boyish faces on their debut LP All Anxious, All the Time (Rum Bar). As leader of the long-gone Dimestore Haloes, frontguy Charles Matthews has a long history of banging out tuneful constructions with bullshit-free flair, and he continues his good work on pleasure-button mashing popsters “Get Low,” “Big Dumb Town” and “My Little Twin.” Maine-to-Spain transplant Kurt Baker adds a bit of Detroit power and L.A. flash to a similar recipe on Shot Through the Heart(Rum Bar), the first full-length from Bullet Proof Lovers. That doesn’t mean power pop hero Baker (joined here by various Spanish r’n’r luminaries) has suddenly gone hard ‘n’ heavy, but it does give “On Overdrive” and “Heart of Stone” a fist-pumping, lighter-waving rush and “All I Want” and “Take It or Leave It” a punky, street rock attack. Unusually for bands like this, the second half of the record is actually stronger than the first.
With a sly grin and blazing attack, power trio Heavy Tiger blasts out of Stockholm with Glitter (Wild Kingdom). The colorful hooks of ‘70s glam rock entwine with the no-nonsense charge of mid-’70s hard rock, before being violated by late ‘70s punk. Riding Maja Linn’s gritty vocals (not unlike Muffs’ leader Kim Shattuck’s) as much as the big-ass guitars, “I Go For the Cheap Ones” and “Feline Feeling” deliver an irresistible opening one-two punch. But the band keeps the hits a-comin’, whether it’s more burning rockers like “Keeper of the Flame,” rousing glam rock like “Devil May Care” (written for the band by the Ark’s Ola Soma) or loud power pop a la “Starshaped Badge and Gun Shy.” The glitter in the album’s title dusts denim vests and ripped jeans.
Back in the bad old days of the late ‘80s, glammed-up quartet Enuff Z’nuff got shoved into the hair metal ghetto, which might’ve been fine had the band gotten the same hits and success as its West Coast peers. (Indeed, it’s an association the band has never shunned.) Unlike its mousse-abused pals, though, the Chicago band fell more heavily on the Cheap Trick and Sweet side of the pop metal street than on the Aerosmith/Starz side. Clowns Lounge (Frontiers) has a few squealing guitar solos, but otherwise leans on vocal harmonies, glittery melodies and big power pop hooks. “Rockabye Dreamland” resembles Jellyfish more than Def Leppard, while “Back in Time” and “Radio” sound more like homeboys Urge Overkill than Aerosmith. It hearkens back to the band’s first couple of albums, which is no surprise, given that it consists of songs reworked from the days before EZ’s 1989 debut LP. That means most of the songs feature original vocalist Donnie Vie, which will set OG fans’ rods a-twirl. Then there’s “The Devil of Shakespeare,” which features, as guests, late Warrant singer Jani Lane, Styx guitarist James Young and – as a ringer? – 20/20 co-leader Ron Flynt. Go figure.
Covers collections usually denote a lack of new material on an artist’s part, regardless of the official line. That said, the Connection has been awfully prolific the past few years and can be forgiven if the urge to hit the studio overtook the effort to write new songs. On Just For Fun! (Rum Bar), the Boston boppers bash through a batch of obvious influences (the Dictators’ “Stay With Me,” Cheap Trick’s “Southern Girls,” Gary Lewis & the Playboys’ “I Can Read Between the Lines,” Dave Edmunds’ “Other Guys Girls”) and left-fielders (George Thorogood’s “Get a Haircut,” the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations,” Bob Seger’s “Get Out of Denver,” “Streets of Baltimore,” the Harlan Howard song recorded by Bobby Bare and Gram Parsons). The band’s reverence for pre-21st century pop reaches its effervescent apex on a faithfully executed take on Syl Sylvain’s timeless “Teenage News,” its ‘billy and bubblegum delirium right in the Connection’s wheelhouse. A stone hoot, Just For Fun! lives up to its title.
The Jigsaw Seen draw from many of the same ‘60s and ‘70s touchstones as the Connection, though they’re filtered through such a personal vision that the L.A. act has always sounded unmoored from time itself. That applies even to For the Discriminating Completist (Burger), a collection of singles, EP tracks and alternate mixes of tunes from across the band’s nearly 30-year career. Echoes of the Who, the Creation, the Kinks and the Move resound, but on “Jim is the Devil,” “My Name is Tom” and “Celebrity Interview,” the Seen always sounds most like itself. That applies even to covers of the Bee Gees, Love, Henry Mancini and the Frank Sinatra/Tony Bennett standard “The Best is Yet to Come.”
The Stoneage Hearts take many of those same influences and beat them with a Nuggets stick, as found on Turn On With (Off the Hip), a reissue of the band’s 2002 debut. The Australian trio’s sugar ‘n’ spice mix of grinning power pop and rough-hewn R&B-flavored garage rock cuts any hint of crap in order to get down to the business of hooks, harmonies and tunes as good as “So Glad (That You’re Gone)” and “Stranded On a Dateless Night.”
Australia’s Little Murders have prowled the Melbourne underground for nearly 30 years in various incarnations. The product of the longest-lived version, Hi-Fab! (Off the Hip) distills the quintet’s virtues – simple melodies, ragged harmonies, a nice mix of jangle and crunch – in 33 minutes of power pop rush. Still led by plainspoken singer/songwriter Rob Griffiths, the Murders sound comfortable and confident on the sprightly “She’s the Real Thing,” sweet “Merry Go Round” and driving “Out of Time.”
Perth’s Manikins predated Little Murders, evolving out of the Cheap Nasties, one of Australia’s first punk outfits. (The Nasties also gave us international treasure Kim Salmon of the Scientists, Beasts of Bourbon and Surrealists fame.) From Broadway to Blazes (Manufactured Recordings) collects the band’s entire oeuvre, from demos to singles to self-released cassettes, on two slabs of vinyl, and it’s ninety minutes of power pop perfection. The quartet deftly beats the hell out of melodic sweetness like Bruce Lee fighting a cheerleader, making the winsome “Love at Second Sight” (in two versions), the raw “Street Treat,” the brittle “Losing Touch” and the blazing “Girl Friday” sharp lessons in how to do it right. Melbourne’s Baudelaires keep the Australian garage rock wave flowing with Musk Hill (Off the Hip), a psychedelicized take on three chords and a bunch of youthful angst. Alternating thumping rockers like “Scrapbooker” and “Foxglove” with trippier concoctions like “Whet Denim” and “Snapper Steve” (not to mention a quick dip into the surf music pool with “Life’s Too Short For Longboards”), the young quartet puts the roll back in psych rock.
Manufactured has also taken it upon itself to rescue a couple more early power pop outfits from obscurity. Smart Remarks may have been the house band at the infamous City Gardens in the early ‘80s, but that was as far as the trio’s notoriety ever got. Too bad – the single and EP sides collected on Foreign Fields: 1982-1984 (Manufactured Recordings) are a delight for fans of the form. The band’s new wavey guitar pop reaches catchy potency on the sparkling “Falling Apart (As It Seems)” and “Mary’s Got Her Eye On Me.” New Jersey’s Modulators hail from the same time period, but let ‘60s/’70s roots like the Hollies and the Raspberries show through any new wave colorization on Tomorrow’s Coming (Manufactured Recordings). That 1984 platter was the trio’s sole LP, but here it’s augmented with a ton of demos, singles and unreleased tracks to grow into a 28-track monster of jangly pop glory.
The Muffs’ first two albums are masterclasses on melodipunk, and, while not the runaway successes so many of their peers’ records were, still put the L.A. trio on the map. So what happened with Happy Birthday to Me (Omnivore), the band’s third album? Creatively, nothing – the record is, cut for cut, the Muffs’ strongest, a consistently catchy, beautifully recorded and enthusiastically performed set that should have been the apex of the band’s upward arc. Alas, its then-record company Reprise decided to put their resources elsewhere, and the Muffs were dropped right as the album came out. (Despite this, it has never fallen out of print.) Fortunately, it’s back, all the better to enjoy the spice cake rush of “That Awful Man,” “Outer Space” and “Honeymoon,” the winsome midtempo power pop of “The Best Time Around,” “Keep Holding Me” and “Upside Down,” the 6/8 mania of “All Blue Baby,” the raging snot rock of “Nothing” and the snide country rock (?!) of “Pennywhore.” Plus a rare cover of the Amps’ “Pacer,” a batch of demos and the bandmembers’ informative and entertaining liner notes, including leader Kim Shattuck’s song-by-song commentary.
British guitarist John Hoyles has, to generally excellent results, toiled in the fields of Swedish rock, slinging strings for prog/doom outfit Witchcraft, boogieing spinoff Troubled Horse and glam/power rockers Spiders. For his solo LP Night Flight (Crusher), however, takes more inspiration from punk and pub rock, with no-nonsense songs and maximum production clarity. Outside of the acid folk of “In the Garden” and overtly psychedelic title track, tunes like “Talking About You,” “Before I Leave” and “Minefield” rock righteously and unselfconsciously. Bonus: a cover of former Pink Fairies guitarist Larry Wallis’ “Police Car” that makes Hoyles’ self-professed love of Stiff Records pretty blatant.
Mark “Porkchop” Holder did time in both blues punk act Black Diamond Heavies (of which he was a founding member) and in the arms of addiction. Free of both, the singer/slide guitarist returns to his hometown of Chattanooga, TN, for Let It Slide (Alive Naturalsound), a set of rocking blues that could only come from someone who’s lived a life on the underside. As such Holder wastes no time with virtuosity or fancy production – he and his rhythm section just crank it up and get down to business with a clearly articulated focus a lot of cracker blues slingers could use. Holder’s lack of illusions about where he’s been and how he got there power the snarling choogle of “Disappearing” and menacing country rock of “Stranger” as much as his raw bottleneck work, and his plainspoken vocals sell every syllable. Rough-and-tumble rambles through “Stagger Lee” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” also prove Holder knows how irreverently to treat a couple of pieces of well-traveled (read: overused) classics without losing touch with their essential spirit. “I’ve got no one but myself to blame!” he shouts during the titanic “My Black Name,” the song most likely to be his “Jumping Jack Flash.” That lack of sentimentality gives Let It Slide the conviction to put it in a different category than the usual flash blues slop.
Australia’s Evil Twin also uses the blues as a jumping off point on its debut Broken Blues (Off the Hip). No revivalists, this pair – nor do they pay homage, unintentional or not, to the White Stripes or the Black Keys. Instead guitarist Jared Mattern and drummer Chris Beechey blast off from the music’s 12-bar origins into loud, grungy rock that’s beholden more to bands Dan Auerbach and Jack White don’t listen to – nothing sounds like Zeppelin, in other words. Led more by Mattern’s measured singing than overwhelming instrumental bombast, dirty slide pound like “Look Into My Mind” and the title track, snarling boogie like “Motor City” and soulful power balladry (!) like “Slow Dance” sound fresh and exciting, the way new classic rock should.
Evil Twin’s country band Power might also argue that the blues is at the heart of its sound, but it’s difficult to tell under the punky crust and general mania on its debut Electric Glitter Boogie (In the Red, though originally released in Australia in 2015; the In The Red LP comes pressed on either red or black vinyl). A deliberate nod to Australia’s legendary hard rock acts Coloured Balls and the Aztecs (names not very familiar to Statesiders, though they might know Aztec leader Billy Thorpe’s later AOR hit “Children of the Sun”), the trio goes over the top with raging riffs, gonzo vocals and an air of barely-contained madness. These boys want to rawk, and when they fire up the wild-eyed boogiepunk of “Slimy’s Chains,” the title track or the band’s eponymous anthem, get with it or get the hell out of the way.
Hailing from Birmingham, Alabama, Heath Green and the Makeshifters holler back to an earlier era, one when British bands like Humble Pie took soul music into harder rock realms than it was logically prepared for. Luckily, the quartet proves itself far less leadfooted than its predecessors on its self-titled debut LP (Alive Naturalsound). Without throwing any accusations of “authenticity” around, it really seems like coming from the American South gives Green a more natural feel for R&B, gospel and the blues, allowing him to fold his pan-seared shout into the Makeshifters’ hard-rocking crash without having to scream to be heard. The fierce pound of “Living On the Good Side,” chunky shuffle of “Secret Sisters” and sanctified soul of “Ain’t Got God” get the balance between tank and testify just right.
Tom Baker and the Snakes have been one of Boston’s best-kept secrets for a few years now, but with Lookout Tower (Rum Bar), the quintet makes a national splash. Marrying the plainspoken songcraft of heartland rock, the high voltage power of the Motor City and the ramshackle grace of a party-all-night bar band, the Snakes bash out catchy tunes like “High n’ Tight,” “Make It Hurt” and “Needle in the Red” like the Replacements if they’d listened to more classic rock than punk. Three guitars keep the riffs, hooks and jangles churning, and Baker’s ragged-but-oh-so-right voice delivers the exact dose of vulnerable swagger. If you like your rock & roll to worry less about subgenres and more about just getting to the good stuff, Tom Baker is yer man, man.
The combination of Detroit rock royalty Deniz Tek (Radio Birdman, the Visitors, his various solo bands) and James Williamson (the Stooges, of course) is so fraught with potential it would be almost impossible for it to live up to expectations. On its debut EP Acoustic K.O. (Leopard Lady), the pair neatly sidesteps the ambitions thrust upon them by delivering an acoustic EP of tunes associated with Williamson’s time with Iggy Pop. Tek’s gruff plainspokenness gives “I Need Somebody” and “Penetration” a note of gravitas, and the duo’s take on “No Sense of Crime” pulls out an obscurity that’s right in their wheelhouse. Oddly, though, the highlight is the Tek-less instrumental “Night Theme,” a mothballed tune that scans like the soundtrack to a crime-and-punishment TV show.
Check out selected audio and video from the records discussed above:
Tom Baker & the Snakes – Lookout Tower Bandcamp:
The Baudelaires – Musk Hill Bandcamp:
Bullet Proof Lovers – Shot Through the Heart Bandcamp:
The Cheap Cassettes – All Anxious, All the Time Bandcamp:
The Connection – Just For Fun:
Enuff Z’Nuff – “Dog On a Bone”:
Evil Twin – Broken Blues Bandcamp:
Heath Green and the Makeshifters – “Ain’t It a Shame”:
Mark Porkchop Holder – “My Black Name”:
John Hoyles – “Talking About You”:
The Jigsaw Seen – “Jim is the Devil”:
Little Murders – Hi-Fab! Bandcamp:
The Manikins – From Broadway to Blazes Bandcamp:
The Modulators – Tomorrow’s Coming Bandcamp:
The Muffs – “Outer Space” (live):
Power – “Electric Glitter Boogie”:
Smart Remarks – Foreign Fields: 1982-1984 Bandcamp:
Deniz Tek & James Williamson – “Penetration”:
Wyldlife – “Contraband”: