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, HERE for Pt. 2, HERE for Pt. 3, HERE for Pt. 4, and HERE for Pt.5. FYI: links to key audio and video tracks follow the main text. Pictured above: Deniz Tek; photo by Anne Tek. (We meant to get this column out before the end of 2018, but life happens. So consider this a round-up of the best rock & roll from the last half of the previous year.)
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Austin’s reactivated Crack Pipes often get tossed in the “garage rock” bin, and while that’s not inaccurate, the quintet has never been a sixties revival act, not even in its earliest days. That’s especially true on Fake Eyelashes (Super Secret), the Pipes’ fifth album and first in a baker’s dozen years. The Pipes distill the raw end of their record collections down to tracks both sweet (“Fake Eyelashes,” “Medusa, Do You Mind?”) and savage (“Lil Cheetah,” “(I’m a) Moon Man, Baby”). Adding bits of soul (“Sha-Zam”), country (the title cut), psychedelia (“Giraffe”) and the blues that shaped the band’s core back in the day (“Sweet & Low”), the Pipes rip on all cylinders, letting strong songwriting power the performances, instead of the other way ‘round. Just to reiterate that this is no retro garage rawk project, the record’s sole cover comes from the catalog of alternative rock icon Grant Hart – and it’s the rocking “You’re a Reflection of the Moon On the Water,” from 2009’s Hot Wax, too.
The Morlocks (American division) hail from the original 80s garage rock revival; amazingly, nearly 35 years after their inception, they’re still standing (even if singer Leighton Koizumi is the only original member left). Bring On the Mesmeric Condition (Hound Gawd!/Rough Trade) – only the San Diego quintet’s fourth studio album in its career – doesn’t alter the original formula an iota. The Morlocks still write tunes that sound like long-lost Nuggets gems and perform with the kind of energy that could only have generated following the late 70s punk rock wave. Which is to say that “Down Underground,” “Easy Action” and “Bothering Me” explode out of the speakers with killer riffs and snarling ‘tude, with Koizumi’s pop-eyed growl as the eye of the hurricane. Not too many of these bands are left, and even fewer can do this bop with any real verve or authenticity. Four decades into their career, the Morlocks still have the goods in spades.
The Ar-Kaics also party like it’s 1965, though not nearly as raucously as their elders. That has less to do with energy than style on In This Time (Wick/Daptone), the Richmond act’s second LP. The quartet comes off less as sneering punks than brooding nerds, with a midtempo rhythm drive that calls to mind folk rock more than garage punk. That doesn’t mean the band can’t rock out when required – cf. “No Vacancy” or “She’s Obsessed With Herself.” But moodier protopsych fare like the seething “Distemper” and poppy “Some People” are far more common. Similarly, Boston’s indefatigable Muck and the Mires share a devotion to sixties pro-am rock, particularly the party variety, but the quartet’s songs simply transcend such easy classification. Muckus Maximus (Rum Bar), the group’s latest EP, spills over with catchy tuneage, “Break It All” and “Loneliness” sure to bring smiles to faces.
Nearing their (gulp) thirtieth anniversary, the Bottle Rockets lean into their Americana side on their thirteenth album Bit Logic (Bloodshot). That doesn’t mean the veteran Missourians have discovered their inner Chris Stapleton – just that Brian Henneman dials up his Willie ‘n’ Waylon influences so they’re a bit more obvious, as on “Way Down South,” “Knotty Pine” and the title track. The band also gets poppy on “Maybe Tomorrow” and “Saxophone” without losing the rootsy influence. Henneman’s trademark wit is in fine form, poking wry fun at humanity in “Doomsday Letter” and “Human Perfection,” and at the music industry itself in “Bad Time to Be an Outlaw.” The Rockets keep their Southern rock edge low-key and avoid their Crazy Horse side, but that doesn’t make Bit Logic anything less than (yet) another solid Bottle Rockets LP. For a taste of the louder version of alt.country, turn to Austin’s Western Youth, whose self-titled, full-length debut (self-released) cranks up the amps even as it keeps to the virtues of songcraft. Frontdudes Taylor Williams and Graham Weber write tunes with melody, heart and just the right touch of soul, and their dedication to the electric guitar as the guiding force of the band keeps soft rock Americana clichés at arms’ length. Check out “Hangin’ On” and “Dying On the Vine” for the Youth at their best.
For Oldest Friend (Off the Hip), its first LP in seven years, Perth, Australia’s Painkillers expand to a four-piece, as singer/guitarist Joe Bludge and drummer James Baker (Hoodoo Gurus, the Scientists, Dubrovniks, etc.) joined by bassist Martyn P. Casey of the Triffids and Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds and guitarist Richard Lane of the Stems and the Chevelles. The addition of two such notables really doesn’t change anything – Bludge still writes country-flavored guitar rockers that teeter between cynicism and sentimentality and sings them in a raw voice devoid, for good or ill, of polish – everybody just stays out of his way to let him express himself. Redolent of everyone from Johnny Dowd and Townes Van Zandt to the Jacobites and the Velvet Underground, Bludge’s vision doesn’t any room for bullshit – “$6 Chicken,” “Honey Bees” and the title track drop pretenses and shoot straight to the heart of barroom prophets everywhere. “I’m doin’ it all over in a rock & roll band,” he declares in “Drunk on a Train,” and that about sums it up.
In case you’ve ever wondered what barbers do in their spare time, the Cutthroat Brothers have the answer. Real life haircutters (though the album cover is a bit too reminiscent of a classic Monty Python sketch to make anyone comfortable sitting in their chairs) Jason Cutthroat and Donny Paycheck (who originally beat the skins for Camarosmith and the mighty Zeke) work out the demons on their self-titled debut (Digital Warfare). Paycheck keeps the rhythmic heart throbbing for Cutthroat, whose grunged-out slide guitar and sedate vocals give basic riff-rockers “Oceans of Blood” and “Kill 4 U” a current of menace and a bucket o’ guts. The pseudo-sibs also bring surprising soul to “Violent Crime,” a ballad (!) that has more in common with Nick Cave than Roy Orbison. Perfectly produced by Jack Endino, whose relationship with Paycheck extends through Zeke to the bands the drummer signed to his sadly defunct Dead Teenager label.
Those missing the wild ‘n’ crazy guys in Guitar Wolf will likely warm to the bluesy garage rock sounds emanating from fellow Japanese combo King Brothers. This trio aren’t the maniacs that Wolf are – let’s face it, no one is – but Wasteland (Hound Gawd!/Rough Trade), its debut album, has plenty of wild-eyed thrills. “Bang! Blues” and “No! No! No!” don’t mess around in the group’s mission to make “Kick Ass Rock.” Melbourne’s Beat Taboo similarly channel the unhinged spirit of the early garagabillies on its debut album Dirty Stash (Off the Hip). Over trashy twin guitars and a rhythm section (including OtH majordomo Mick Baty) as comfortable with rockabilly grunge as swamp rawk, Pange De Bauche growls, howls, rants and croons his way through “Lick My Wail,” “Cat Lady Man” and “Voodoo Beat” like the successor to Nick Cave and Tex Perkins.
Considering how tense modern times are, it takes some balls to sing “I’m a gun and I’m gonna kill you.” But that’s the Blankz for ya, apparently, at least on its third single “I’m a Gun” b/w “Bad Boy” (Slope). With analog synth sharing space with crunchy guitar, the Arizona quintet’s new wavey punk pop is big on old-fashioned pop hooks and sneering attitude. Better is the band’s fourth single “(It’s a) Breakdown” b/w “You’re Not My Friend Anymore” (Slope) – both tunes let the keyboard take the lead and feature stronger vocal performances.
Protopunk legend Deniz Tek has had a productive decade – between Radio Birdman reunions and side projects, he’s released three solo albums in the past five years. That includes the brand new Lost For Words (Career), which, as might be gathered from the title, dismisses lyrics and vocals in favor of an all-instrumental program. Unsurprisingly for the guy that wrote “Aloha Steve and Danno,” surf rock is the biggest building block – cf. “Eddie Would Go” and “Hondo’s Dog.” But there’s more to Lost For Words than refried Dick Dale, with the influence of spy movie soundtracks (“Lies and Bullets”), spaghetti western cinematic twang (“The Barrens”), Southwestern folk rock (“It Shall Be Life”) and groovy soul (“Boneyard”). The record also includes a pair of Birdman tracks: an instrumental reworking of the title track to 2006’s Zeno Beach and the otherwise unreleased “Vanished.” Another highlight of an always interesting and frequently brilliant career.
Speaking of legends, Paul Collins still walks the earth, dropping power pop nuggets as he goes. The erstwhile leader of the Beat resurfaces after a few years off with Out of My Head (Alive Naturalsound), the follow-up to 2014’s Feel the Noise. Though he’s in his sixties, Collins has managed to hold on to the boyish quality of his voice, which gives simple, lovelorn ditties like “Kind of Girl,” “Beautiful Eyes” and “Emily” a certain poignancy. And while rockers like “Midnight Special” and “Go” don’t exactly set amps on fire, they’ve got enough verve to at least rearrange the furniture. “Killer Inside,” meanwhile, explores an area of rock noir that’s not usually on Collins’ itinerary, and does it quite well, too. Seattle’s Cheap Cassettes work similar terrain on the Kiss the Ass of My Heart EP (Rum Bar), the follow-up to its excellent debut All Anxious, All the Time. Leader and former Dimestore Halo Chaz Matthews likes simple, traditional pop melodies roughed up with rock & roll guitar and vocal grit, making “Black Leather Angel” and the title track balms for pop fans in studded belts.
Chicago musicmaesters Rick Mosher and Kenn Goodman have an estimable career going back to the eighties with the Service, the New Duncan Imperials and their industrious indie label Pravda. The Imperial Sound, the duo’s latest music project, blends airy power pop with horn-driven soul on its debut The New AM. If anything defines this record, it’s taste. Guitarist Mosher and keyboardist Goodmann keep their licks straight and to the point, and the horns augment the tunes perfectly. Given the LP’s title, it’s unsurprising that Mosher’s melodies betray a love of the smarter side of 70s pop and soul, and his arrangements keep ‘em clean and sweet. While Mosher’s plainspoken voice suits “Daylight,” “The Sun Goes Out” and “Back On Your Table” just fine, he also brings in friends for other tracks, highlighting singer/songwriter Nora O’Connor on the straight soul of “Yesterday,” R&B belter Robert Cornelius on the funky “A Man Like You” and the duo of Kelly Hogan and Peter Himmelman on the snappy “Ain’t Crawling Back.” Every track is catchy and to the point. Folks who wondered what happened to these folks after the New Duncs petered out will be happy to tune up The New AM.
We loved the first album from Justine and the Unclean as a wonderfully tight collision of glam, power pop, punk and hard rock. Unsurprisingly, Heartaches and Hot Problems (Rum Bar), the Boston quartet’s follow-up EP, is just as good. From the turbocharged pop of “Be Your Own Reason” and the bare-knuckled punk ‘n’ roll of “The System is Set to Self Destruct” to the deadpan boogie of “Margaritas and Secondhand Smoke” and genre-agnostic rawk of “Monosyllabic Man,” the Unclean waste no time on anything other than good tunes and hot rockin’. Frontperson Justine Covault seems to have picked up the long-abandoned baton of Nikki & the Corvettes, a most welcome infusion of new energy into the artery-hardened revenant of rock & roll. Though pulling from the same elements, Giuda ups the glam quotient considerably on its latest seven-inch “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” b/w “Born Under a Bad Sign” (Rise Above). All power chord riffs and choral chants, the Roman quintet has never been about anything other than a good time, and with drums that seem to beam straight from the British charts circa 1972, it can’t do anything else.
At its best, rock & roll should have an edge of danger and insanity, as if things might threaten to fall apart any minute. There aren’t many contemporary artists who embody that edge more than Obnox, AKA Lamont “Bim” Thomas (pictured below). The Clevelander’s latest album Bang Messiah (Smog Veil) – his tenth in less than a decade – is a half-hour of his stripped-down blend of punk, hip-hop and electro rock, starting with an obscenity-filled rant called “Steve Albini Thinks We Suck” and ending with the simmering electro-thwomp “Fluss.” In between you get straight rap cuts like “Rally On the Block,” mutant R&B like “Peek-a-Boo” and punk rock tantrums like “I Hate Everything.” Thomas is definitely not everyone’s flagon of cyanide, but there’s no denying the guy oozes rock & roll attitude in a way far too many rockers of his generation eschew.
The Ar-Kaics – “No Vacancy”:
The Blankz – “I’m a Gun”:
The Bottle Rockets – Bit Logic Bandcamp:
The Cheap Cassettes – Kiss the Ass of My Heart Bandcamp:
Paul Collins – “Go”:
The Crack Pipes – Fake Eyelashes:
The Cutthroat Brothers – “Kill 4 U”:
Giuda – “Rock N Roll Music” 7-inch Bandcamp:
The Imperial Sound – “A Man Like You”:
Justine and the Unclean – Heartaches and Hot Problems Bandcamp:
The King Brothers – “No Want”:
The Morlocks – “Bothering Me”:
Muck and the Mires – Muckus Maximus Bandcamp:
Obnox – “Cream”:
The Painkillers – “Oldest Friend” Bandcamp:
Deniz Tek – “Burn the Breeze”:
Western Youth – s-t Bandcamp: