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, HERE for Pt.5, and HERE for Pt.6. FYI: links to key audio and video tracks follow the main text. Pictured above: the eternal Suzi “Can the Can” Quatro, aka Leather Tuscadero – accept no subsitute.
BY MICHAEL “DENIM” TOLAND
For some artists, a lack of evolution leads to a long, slow death (and not the cool Flamin’ Groovies kind). Others, however, find their groove and not only stick to it, but make it sound fresh, over and over again. Pat Todd & the Rankoutsiders are one such – the former Lazy Cowgirls leader and his merry crew have stayed in a punk-informed roots rawk lane for over a decade now (longer if you count the last few LPs by the Cowgirls) and have yet to falter. The Past Came Callin’ (Hound Gawd/Rough Trade) maintains the high standard of quality of the quintet’s previous four records, even if its construction is slightly more motley than usual. Though chock full of bristlingly strong new tunes – check “Call You On Sunday Night,” “A New Pair of Eyes” and “The Ballad of Crystal Valladares” for cowpunk done right on – Todd turns his back pages to resurrect some older songs, some going back twenty years.
The blazing “Yeah, Ya Had a Bad Night” and “If I Could Only Fly Backwards in Time” and the Cowgirls’ “Somewhere Down the Line” shake off any accumulated rust with ease and sound fresh as daisies. Todd also pulls out some favorites from other folks’ catalogs, including a heartfelt rendition of Stax soul staple William Bell’s “Any Other Way,” an appropriately folky take on the old Texan ballad “Down in Old Boerne” and the acoustically rockin’ “Idle Time,” penned by Sons of Hercules’ Dale Hollon. This typically fine Rankoutsiders album wraps up with “Just Between You & Me” – just Todd, an acoustic guitar, a harmonica and a human soul.
As one of the few acts that understands how to take inspiration from the sixties without being overtly retro, The Connection has been one of the best power pop/garage rock bands to hit the stage in the last decade. After six albums in eight years, the time has apparently come for the inevitable solo albums. Lead singer Brad Marino weighs in with Extra Credit (Rum Bar), a collaboration with Rum Bar labelmate and Connection bandmate Kris Rodgers and songwriter Michael Chaney. Clearly Marino’s apples don’t fall far from the tree – though perhaps a hair poppier and less aggressive than the Connection’s work, “Don’t Do the Crime,” “What Comes Naturally” and “Fit To Be Tied” would fit right in on one of that band’s better records. (Note: the CD we received lists four bonus tracks on the cover, but they’re not on the actual disk.) Marino’s songsmithing partner Geoff Palmer, however, adds an 80s punk/pop vibe to his solo debut Pulling Out All the Stops (Rum Bar). Aided by various former and current Connections (including Marino and Chaney), Palmer puts an overt 60s spin on the crunchy sweetness of bands like All and the Descendants with tongue-in-cheek sugarbombs like “Everything is Cool,” “All the Hits” and “I Like Murder Too.”
Speaking of the sixties, the career of Richard X. Heyman goes back to that decades via still-going New Jersey rockers the Doughboys, so when he draws on that era for inspiration, it’s helpful to remember that he’s a first-gen practitioner. That said, that sound is only as good as its timelessness, and the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist hits that note squarely on his twelfth and latest album Pop Circles (Turn-Up). From the folk-rocking “Upside and Down” and the creamy “As Love Would Have It” to the crystalline jangle pop of “Guess You Had to Be There” and the melodic aggression of “Action Screams Louder Than Words,” Heyman makes the art of catchy power pop seems ridiculously easy. No innovation here, but pushing the envelope isn’t nearly as important on this record as heartfelt craft.
Austin’s intrepid Ugly Beats have similarly never let their sixties obsessions hold them back. On fifth album Stars Align (Get Hip), the quintet pens a typically winsome set of melodic pop rockers that are much Yellow Pills as #Nuggets#, highlighted by the jangling “All In,” chugging “Take Your Time” and hopping “Boy, You’re in Love.”
Milwaukee’s Indonesian Junk keeps one foot in street-smart, sleazy glam and the other in bar band power pop on its third LP Spiderbites (Rum Bar), just as it has on its prior albums. While its attitude remains consistent, head Junker Daniel James just keeps getting better as a songwriter, with stronger melodies, more mature construction and a general sense that the sky’s the limit on his talent. Thus the band easily shifts from the Chuck Berry muscle of “Headbanger” to the almost pretty pop rock of “City Lights,” from the desperate punk & roll of “Through the Night” to the moody quasi-ballad “I Could Die,” without sounding like it’s trying too hard. Further proof that IJ is one of the best-kept secrets in rock & roll.
Mining an extremely sweet spot between power pop, roots rock and garage rock, Thee Idylls reiterate the strengths of simplicity: strong songs played without frills and plenty of conviction on their second EP My Fist. My Voice. My Dress. My Letter. (Chicken Ranch). No surprise, really, given that the L.A. foursome is led by John Crooke of long-gone alt.country shouldabeenstars Jolene, but here the singer/songwriter sounds refreshed, if not galvanized, by his years out of the spotlight. “A Picture Made” would have ruled college radio three decades ago, “Of California” hard-drives itself into the set-closing slot of any well-heeled rock & roll band, and “My Camera” merely stands as excellent. When this band gets around to a full-length LP, it’ll no doubt be a stone killer. (Note: the EP will be available in January on digital formats and as an extremely limited 10-inch. Ed note: And a lathe-cut 10-inch as that. Better order fast, as I did.]
It’s fair to slap a “garage rock” label on Cromm Fallon. After all, his solo debut Electric Bloom (Rum Bar) is full of sixties-style bon-bons like the rocking “East Bay” and “Out of Control” and the jangly “Scars From You,” and sweet bites they are, too. But the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (who also works with the Van der Rohe and the Laissez Faires) has reaches beyond his Nuggets collection for rackety pop soul (“The Next One”), brooding acid balladry (“No Sleep”), introspective folk rock (“Death Room”), dreamy psych pop (“Electric Change”) and lumering proto-metal (“Hired Suicide”). Boasting a knack for strong melodies and a straightforward vocal style that works whatever direction he wanders, Fallon comes up with a strong debut with loads of promise of future glories.
Sounding as if the Replacements hit Hootenanny and quit evolving, Boston’s legendary Dogmatics return from self-imposed limbo with She’s the One (Rum Bar) – their first new music in (wait for it) thirty years. Featuring timeless rock & roll nuggets like “I Love Rock and Roll” (not the Arrows tune Joan Jett made famous), “The Ballad of Wilbur Ross” and the title track, not to mention snappy takes on Richie Parsons’ “Summertime” and the Reducers’ “Black Plastic Shoes,” the EP showcases a band that’s none the worse for wear after so much time away. Labelmates The Gotham Rockets hail from a different scene entirely – led by singer/guitarist Matt Langone and drummer Mighty Joe Vincent, the quartet’s soaked in the NYC garage rock scene going back decades. But the four songs on Blast Off (Rum Bar) evince the same love of rock & roll of many eras, from the fifties (dig Steve Greenfield’s sizzlin’ sax) to the eighties (the cool power pop of “What’s Done is Done”). Besides, how could anyone resist a line like “My love is strong – it’s been known to change the weather?”
Denver’s Fast Eddy celebrate that point when power poppers jumped into the action rock pool, adopting turbocharged Big Rawk flash and sneering attitude while keeping the foundation of pop melody and creamy harmonies intact. (Cf. Biters, the Greatest Hits, Wyldlife, etc.) Produced by Biters’ Tuk Smith, Toofer One (Boulevard Trash/Spaghetty Town), the quartet’s latest 7-inch is rich with all the virtues listed above – “Hurricane Alley” and “Milwaukee” present high craft attacked with rock & roll abandon, while “Lost” updates Chuck Berry for a post-punk rock world. The U.K.’s Los Pepes count as fellow travelers on their latest album Positive Negative (Gods Candy/Spaghetty Town), pumping up tuneful confections like “Let Me Tell You Something,” “Think Back” and “Ain’t Life Easy” with enough energy to light up an underground cavern, and just enough attitude to be dangerous. Is it punk? Is it power pop? Is it action rock? All of the above, and all blitz.
Melbourne’s Baby 8 keep the same faith, with a sweet ‘n’ crunchy melange of punk, power pop, hard rock and psychedelia on its debut We Hate Each Other, But We Hate You More# (Kasumuen). That the band can move so easily between the candy-coated pop of “Hypodermic” to the sneering butt rock of “Night Wants to Kill” without whiplash shows off a subtly high caliber of songcraft and a personality that imprints no matter what the template.
A longtime associate of “Medway sound” mavens Billy Childish and Holly Golightly, prolific rocker Dan Melchior inaugurates his Band with ’Outside In’ (Midnight Cruiser). Though still a good fit in whatever low-fi, garage rocking genre Childish developed way back when, Melchior incorporates such arty flavors as postpunk and #motorik# into his punkabilly racket, allowing him to stretch out on tunes like the mantra-minded “Brownsville,” “Chinese Wine” and the groovy title track without slipping into jam band territory. “Pheasant Plucker,” a catchy version of the standard “Rye Whiskey” and a delightful take on Mose Allison’s “Your Mind is On Vacation” fulfill the basic rock requirements as well.
Blurt’s covered the ever-prolific Left Lane Cruiser a few times before, for good reason: the weed-obsessed Indiana outfit rarely falters. #Shake and Bake (Alive), the group’s tenth record, finds the (once again) trio in fine form. Led, as always, by Freddy J IV’s gritty voice and dirty slide guitar, the band puts the pedal to the boogie with a set of raw-boned rock & roll rattlers. Blues is the flour, punk is the butter and “Two Dollar Elvis,” “Breaking You Down” and “Sweat Love to Shine” are the tasty biscuits.
Led by the Gotohells’ Edo McGrady, Cheap Gunslingers crank up the punk & roll on their self-titled debut LP (Rum Bar). Though originally intended to feature vanished performance artist Melissa DuCasse as part of the lineup, the trio sounds enthusiastic and confident here, putting three or four chords to good use on sneering, catchy blasters like “Record Store” and the self-explanatory “Three Chords” – not to mention the outlaw country outlier “Water Table Line.” Cheap and easy pleasures, maybe, but oh-so-satisfying.
The unrepentant snotrockets in Nottingham’s Hip Priests keep the throttle stuck on “full” for their fourth LP Stand For Nothing (Gods Candy/Ghost Highway/Digital Warfare). Wielding a blunt instrument perfected from bits of punk and hard rock, the quintet eschews prisoners on slam rock anthems “Cheers to Me,” “Losers of the Faith” (heh) and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Leper” with so much fury you’d swear they were from Scandinavia.
Southern California’s legendary Dickies appear and disappear at will, but they’re never gone for good. Still led by singer Leonard Graves Phillips and guitarist Stan Lee, the quintet rears its crazy-eyed head for a quick two-song single (Slope). Side A takes on “I Dig Go-Go Girls,” a Cheap Trick outtake circa that band’s first album. It’s presented fairly faithfully to the Trick’s patented hard pop style, complete with an attempt by guest vocalist Monkey (from the Adicts) at Robin Zander’s vocal acrobatics. The flip side fares better, as “The Dreaded Pigasaurus,” a new original, boasts such a catchy melody and dollop of sheer silliness, it’s worth the price of admission alone.
New music from the gleefully-rocking Giuda is always a good thing, and new single “Overdrive” b/w “Lunar Eye” (Rise Above) is no different. The Italian combo’s giddy glam rock vision has expanded to include more straightforward hard rock of late, but that doesn’t mean they’ve forgone their singalong hooks, as both these songs prove. Very few modern acts capture the original seventies spirit of glam without carbon copying – that Giuda does it so effortlessly makes them ingenious as well as pure fun. Unlike Giuda, Suzi Quatro was doing the glam rock thing in the beginning. The Detroit-bred/German-dwelling singer/songwriter/bassist sounds no worse for nearly fifty years of wear, however, on No Control (Steamhammer/SPV). Some odd diversions (like the Latin pop of “Love Isn’t Fair”) aside, the songs rock like mothers – check out “Macho Man,” “Easy Pickin’s” and the magnificent pener “No Soul/No Control” to hear a pioneer casually show up her progeny.
“Heartland punk” is not a thing some of us thought would ever happen, but there’s more attitudinal crossover between Bruce Springsteen and the Clash that one might think. Add some of that good old fashioned Midwestern melody and you’ve got a band like Mono in Stereo. Following its 2015 debut Long For Yesterday, the Rockford, IL quartet returns with Can’t Stop the Bleeding (Rum Bar), five slices of tuneful rock/punk with hearts on sleeves. “The Conversation,” “Different Kind of Man” and the title track will make fast friends with fans of acts like the Gaslight Anthem, Lucero, the Junk Monkeys and Rum Bar compadres Nato Coles and The Right Here.
Nat Freedberg is hardly a household name, but surely he qualifies as some sort of underground rock legend by now, at least in the Northeast. Having led the Flies, the Titanics and the Upper Crust, Freedberg (who released the fine solo LP #Better Late Than Never# earlier this year) unveils his new combo Freeloader with The Path of Least Resistance (Rum Bar). Leaving aside his punk and power pop leanings, the Boston rawk stalwart leans into no-bullshit hard rock, like the Crust without the theatrical trappings. (Well, except for the ridiculous “The Highland Fling.”) Though #Path# could use some of the Crust’s over-the-top energy, solid riffs abound (cf. “The Thing to Do” and “Back of the Line”), and Freedberg’s wry sense of humor shines on “Halfway Decent” and “Ten Songs Make An Album.” If you’ve ever wanted to know what Bon Scott would sound like covering the Four Seasons, check out Freeloader’s cover of “Rag Doll.”
Butt rockin’ has long been the sole province of Canadian fistpumper Danko Jones, as evidenced on A Rock Supreme (M-Theory Audio). Jones and his rhythm section bring a certain sophistication to their ninth album, letting a little musical variety into the trio’s previously hermetically sealed world – cf. the smooth dynamic shifts of “Dance Dance Dance.” But musical development has never been the highest of priorities for Jones, and that’s just fine. Fancy intervals and jazz scales would only get in the way of the earthy riffery and singalong choruses of “Lipstick City” and “Fists Up High.” When you can sing “All I want to do is play my guitar and rock ‘n’ roll” with this much sincerity, you don’t need to “improve.”
Back in its eighties L.A. heyday, Junkyard never quite fit into its Aquanet-misted surroundings. [I saw ’em twice back in the day and they kicked ass! – Ed.] Neither as glitter-sexed as Poison, nor as gutter-desperate as Guns ‘N Roses, the Texas/California hybrid (featuring former axeslingers from Minor Threat and the Big Boys) was too riddled with street punk and Southern rock to fit comfortably on the late 80s version of Headbanger’s Ball. Thus the quintet’s first two albums for Geffen never quite caught on, and the third was never released at all. Until now, that is. Only 27 years late, Old Habits Die Hard (Acetate) finally rears its denim-wrapped head. (Some of these songs appeared on the band’s self-released odds ‘n’ sods collections Joker and XXX.) Traces of both punk and the blues line the borders of hard rockers “I Come Crawling” and “Take Me Home,” while “Hangin’ Around” could slip into the setlist of your average alt.country bar band and no one would know the difference. The ballad “Tried & True” sounds genuinely heartbroken and soulful, unlike the efforts by most of their peers, and “Pushed You Too Far” is the kind of catchy, exciting anthem that should’ve put them over. Had Old Habits Die Hard come out when it was supposed to, it…probably would’ve been buried alive by the Alternative Nation. But who knows? Maybe it would’ve kept the band from being unfairly labeled a hair metal footnote.
Speaking of folks mislabeled due to proximity (deliberate and otherwise) to headbangers with bigger video budgets than guitar amps, legendary rocker and Sunset Strip influencer Michael Monroe returns with One Man Gang (Silver Lining Music), his fifth solo record since the second dissolution of his seminal band Hanoi Rocks. With his international band (guitarists Steve Conte and Rich Jones, bassist Sami Yaffa, drummer Karl Rockfist) still in tow, Monroe maintains the quality of his previous records, almost effortlessly blasting out anthem after anthem, mining his past experience while still facing the future with youthful enthusiasm. “Black Ties and Red Tape” and the title track rip with punk rock fury, while “Wasted Years” and “Last Train to Tokyo” boast melodies that’ll stay with you long after the spinning (or streaming) ends. Monroe has been on a consistent roll in the last decade, and it’s nice to hear it continuing.
Anyone who can simultaneously represent both the Australian and Detroit wings of Rock & Roll Headquarters is all right with us, and the ever-rocking Deniz Tek fits that bill. (At this point, his history is too long and complex to go into here. Google his website and read his journal entries if you want to know.) Joined once again by the Godoy boys – bassist Art and drummer Steve, his go-to rhythm section for a quarter century – on Fast Freight (Career) the erstwhile Radio Birdman leader stays true to the stripped-down, fuss-less aesthetic he’s favored since he started pumping out solo records: guitar, bass and drums, with no-nonsense vocals and basic riff-rock, all recorded live and direct. “Out of the Mood” and “When the Trouble Comes” don’t mess around, and if the sense of ambition that’s been evident on other recent releases is muted, it’s replaced by the confidence of a musician who knows how to maximize that at what he’s best.
Veteran British rocker Dave Kusworth keeps on keepin’ on, surviving the loss of his brother-in-arms Nikki Sudden and his own bad habits. This is in part due to the support of Spanish rock & roll true believers Los Tupper, who back the Birmingham-ite on Cinderella’s Shoes (Sunthunder), the pairing’s second full-length collaboration. Tupper’s love of the Faces and the Stones matches Kusworth’s own, so they’re perfect for lending the perfect amount of grease to rockers “Black Lace & Silver” and “Nothing (Lil’ Miss Conscience)” and delicate soul to ballads “Maide Vale Girl” and “Broken Dishes.” Feeling himself on solid ground, the man himself turns a set of tunes that won’t rewrite the R&R rulebook, but keep the faith as well anyone working this groove, including the Glimmer Twins themselves. Kusworth almost feels like a man out of time here, but anyone craving that certain mix of grit ‘n’ sentiment that used to animate rock & roll will be happy to step into the wayback machine.
Rock isn’t (only) about mining past glories, of course – fans’ fixation on the music of their youth is what’s contributed to its fall from popular grace in the first place. So it’s imperative to hail bands like The Black Tones, who pull from the past while making music of the now. The Seattle duo’s debut LP Cobain and Cornbread (self-released) works basic blues rock, not unlike the early years of the Black Keys. But instead of sounding like they discovered some blues records and borrowed the vibe, guitarist/harmonica player/singer Eva Walker and drummer Cedric David come on like the blues have been in their blood since birth, allowing them to write songs that carry familiar riffology, but without directly ripping off the past masters. Thus “Plaid Pants,” “Ghetto Spaceship” and the mighty “The Key of Black (They Want Us Dead)” stand as modern, not retro, rock & roll, made by young musicians using the tools they have to make a noise that lives in the present. The band nods more directly to tradition with the harp ‘n’ voice take on the gospel tune “Rivers of Jordan,” but go farther afield on the banjo-driven “Striped Walls” and the all-out goofy “Mama, There’s a Spider in My Room.” Old school rock fans will glom onto the pair’s easy familiarity with the classic rock format, but the Tones aren’t interested in reviving anything – they’re ready to move on from tradition, even as they strategically utilize its contrivances.
. Check out some choice audio and video from the folks featured in this report!
Baby 8 – We Hate Each Other But We Hate You More Bandcamp:
The Black Tones – Cobain and Cornbread Bandcamp:
Cheap Gunslingers – s/t Bandcamp:
Cromm Fallon – Electric Bloom:
The Dickies – “I Dig Go-Go Girls” teaser:
The Dogmatics – She’s the One Bandcamp:
Fast Eddy – Toofer One Bandcamp:
Freeloader – Path of Least Resistance Bandcamp:
Giuda – “Overdrive” Soundcloud:
The Gotham Rockets – Blast Off Bandcamp:
Richard X. Heyman – “Guess You Had to Be There”:
The Hip Priests – Stand For Nothing Bandcamp:
Thee Idylls – “A Picture Made”:
Indonesian Junk – Spiderbites Bandcamp:
Danko Jones – “Fists Up High”:
Dave Kusworth & Los Tupper – Cinderella’s Shoes Bandcamp:
Left Lane Cruiser – “Shake and Bake”:
Brad Marino – Extra Credit Bandcamp:
Dan Melchior Band – Outside In Bandcamp:
Mono in Stereo – Can’t Stop the Bleeding Bandcamp:
Michael Monroe – “Last Train to Tokyo”:
Geoff Palmer – Pulling Out All the Stops Bandcamp:
Los Pepes – Positive Negative Bandcamp:
Suzi Quatro – “No Soul/No Control”:
The Ugly Beats – Stars Align Bandcamp: