Most ’90s radio rock was just really loud and distorted pop songs. Somebody probably would have noticed eventually that Boston’s “More than a Feeling” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were pretty similar, but Nirvana self-disclosed this by at least once singing Boston’s words and melody over their song.
And while some a lot of ’90s bands took rock way too seriously, some simply wrote great songs; the ones that figured out rock was pretty much loud pop were among the best at this (Blur, Oasis, Nirvana, sometimes Bush) and the absolute worst (Candlebox, Creed, sometimes Bush). Live, on the other hand, took rock very seriously, and they made awesome music too. This isn’t an exclusivity clause.
Still, really loud pop songs make Junebug Spade‘s Extra Virgin Olive Oil my favorite straight-up rock’n’roll release of the year. It takes a lot to get me psyched about ’90s-inspired rock, but a good starting point is a killer melody, and JS has those in spades. Both the guitars and the vocals layer on the catchy, and the results are dynamite. When both of those elements come together on “Slow Your Roll,” it’s clear that Junebug Spade understands this: guys wanna rock, girls wanna shimmy, and everyone wants to sing along, either at the show or in their car. They provide the goods for all of that. This band makes everyone happy. That, my friends, is admirable.
The basic elements of this band are nothing new: a songwriter/guitarist/vocalist, guitarist, bassist and drummer. Bassist Kyle Mayfield is high in the mix, which is a standard ’90s move that provides a nice counterpoint to the melodies. The drummer wails away. The guitars go after it in the aforementioned awesome way. Vocalist Peter Seay caps off the sound with a slacker-tastic vocal delivery that makes it sound like he’s totally not even working that hard to deliver these songs. It’s not the sterilized/rote vocal performances that sometimes took over radio rock; there’s a non-southern drawl to his vocal, and it fits perfectly over the tunes.
All five tunes are money, but “Public Display of Affection” takes a perky, Strokes-ian riff and totally morphs it with a mega chorus. “Slow Your Roll” employs an awesome tempo change and a wicked slide guitar riff (!) to close out the EP. “Aborigine” has Blur all over the guitar line, and I love it, because Seay’s voice is nothing like Albarn’s, so it sounds like an homage and not a rip-off.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil is entertaining all the way through. For a guy who doesn’t cover hardly any straight-up rock anymore, this is a pretty dramatic statement. Fans of rock shouldn’t sleep on Junebug Spade.
There are artists in this world that cut a huge swath across their genre. They’re the Bob Dylan, Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie and Shins-type bands; their sound is so distinct that it’s hard for them to escape it, much less anyone who sounds like them. This is a shame, because as any hipster will tell you, Nirvana wasn’t the first band to sound like Nirvana. There were people before and after Nirvana who sounded just like ’em, but those before didn’t get the glory and those after glommed onto the glory without earning it or were shunted to the side as copycats.
I hope that Derek Porter can fall into the former category; it would be easy to shove him aside as a Bon Iver disciple, but that’s not a fair judgment. There are striking similarities in the folk tunes of the two men: both have a rustic sound, favor spare arrangements and feature a high, trembling vocalist. But where Bon Iver makes paeans to the cold desolation of heartbreak, Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 is a humble and inviting exploration of memory.
It’s probably good that these tunes aren’t as wholesale despair-laden as Bon Iver’s work. I don’t know if I could take much more of that. I much prefer Porter’s lively, bluegrass-inflected “I Remember” to the atmospheric density he employs in “All I Know Will Be Forgotten.” When “I Remember” drifts off into a weary haze, it still doesn’t meander into navel-gazing depression. This is because Porter takes careful care of the moods he creates; he’s not creating standard depressing fare, but his strength is still the moods he is putting out.
“I Forgot” is a cheery, wide-eyed tune, incorporating an accordion to great effect. It doesn’t have the direct, powerful melodies that some bands make their living on, but the overall mood cultivated is just as satisfying in this and other cases. There are good melodies sprinkled throughout, but the moods are much more consistent and thereby more praiseworthy.
Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 is a solid EP. If you’re big on atmosphere (or a film scorer), Derek Porter should jump high up in your queue. He’s got a composer’s ear and skills. The tunes aren’t as direct, clear and elegant as Avett Brothers or Low Anthem tunes, but his command of mood transforms a room. It will be interesting to see if he develops his melodic prowess in the future or whether he pours himself even more into the atmosphere work. No matter which way he goes, Strangers, Vol. 1 is a great EP to put on during a lazy day and just be with.
Last December, Miami-based Jacuzzi Fuzz released their excellent new album, The Best Worst-Case Scenario, on Treehouse Records. This reggae- and rock-infused band has created a highly enjoyable 11-track album, beginning with the ear-catching guitar riff on “Milton’s Revenge.”
Fans of Sublime, Nirvana, Rx Bandits and Bob Marley alike will find appeal in the sound of Jacuzzi Fuzz. The guitar work on the album showcases excellent musicianship, so much so that I’m kind of aching to watch them play live. The band really has found the perfect balance between the energy of rock and the beat of reggae.
A favorite on the record is “Gold Rush,” for its snake-like guitar that weaves throughout the pounding drums and interesting vocals by Andy Clavijo. Clavijo’s voice has the ability to express lyrics like, “big up your style, big up your life when you jah to see ya through your strife…”with a reggae swag. At the same time his vocals are tinged with a roughness that gives him a signature raw sound. Clavijo also takes credit for the guitar on the album, making his work all the more impressive.
Other interesting components of the record include an instrumental track and a political rant, much in the footsteps of Marley. The record wraps up with Clavijo singing, “our economy isn’t free, it costs dollars,” to the chugging of an acoustic guitar.
Jacuzzi Fuzz is credited with playing shows with the likes of Damian Marley, Against All Authority and the Expendables. The well-rounded quality from start to end of this record is well worth checking out, even for those who don’t regularly listen to reggae/grunge. I was impressed by the lyrics, which tops off the impressiveness of these guys. With one part thoughtful lyrics, one part awesome instrumental, and one part reggae magic that takes you right to the beaches of Miami, listeners won’t be disappointed by The Best Worst Case Scenario.
Rachael’s I Bet You Like Drugs Instead of Sex EP inhabits the space between Nirvana and Silversun Pickups. Their gritty, grunge-flavored rock with boy/girl vocal trade-offs picks up the attitude but not the volume of Nirvana’s work, while the guitar sound evokes Silversun Pickups without the emotional undertones. Rachael is a garage band at heart, and there are few, if any, overtures or underpinnings. Anything they wanted to say they said straight-up.
“Juditha” features Mike’s snarling vocals against Olg’s sung ones, couched in an urgent, sinister tune. Highlight “All You Need is Lead” comes closest to evoking Silversun, as the guitarist kicks in the reverb and fills out the track with some dense melodic work. Morose slow burner “Going Up in Smoke” shows a different angle of their sound, letting the songwriting take precedence over rocking out; it’s a valiant effort that struggles in laying too much weight on the vocals, which aren’t well suited for this type of song.
I Bet You Like Drugs Instead of Sex is a great EP. It shows a lot of promise in the songwriting, performance, and production style. There are still things to work out, but Rachael has showed that they have solid ideas and are able to execute them well.
Ever since Nirvana became the world’s most prestigious rock band by playing distorted pop songs, the line between pop and rock has been blurred. To me, it’s pretty much an attitude at this point. Modest Mouse is a rock band, mostly because they sneer at anything and everyone who doesn’t fit into their ideas of the way things should be. Even though Three Days Grace, Hinder, and even Nickelback play “rock’n’roll” by modern standards, they are pop bands. They are pop bands because they act like preening pop stars and not like rock stars (i.e. hedonistic excess does not a rock band make).
Play the Angel is one of the best pop bands I’ve heard in years. They play “rock” by the radio’s standards, but they don’t have any of the attitude of a rock band. And that’s a good thing, because they embrace their pop star aesthetics and give the people what they want. There are five songs on this EP: straightforward rock’n’roller, major-key powerballad, dance-rock tune, whoa-oh pop-punk tune, and Gavin DeGraw-style emotive piano ballad. They have real names, of course, but they each fit excellently into their own radio niche. “So what?” you say. “Bands do that crap all the time.”
Yeah, they do, but they do one of the genres better than the other. Play the Angel does all five right. They could release every song off this EP as a radio single and, with proper label backing, they would have five number one hits. Their songwriting is just that good. Their vocalist has an incredibly appealing voice that’s a tad lower than Tyson Ritter of the All-American Rejects but just as emotive. Their production values are pitch-perfect. The band knows when to get out of the way of the vocals and when to crash in for the emotional payoff. Play the Angel does everything right.
If you like anything on rock radio right now, from Fall Out Boy to Hinder to Panic! at the Disco to Paramore to All-American Rejects and anything in between, you’re going to absolutely fall in love with Play the Angel. I don’t have a clue why this band hasn’t shot to the top of the charts yet. They’ve got every piece of the puzzle in line. They just need to see the right guy at the right gig who turns them into mega-stars. Cause, geez, they’re infinitely better than Nickelback. And that crap still sells millions. Again, if you turn on the radio and like anything you hear, Play the Angel is there for you. It’s that good.
It is sad that when grunge pretty much died in 1994, the post-grunge movement chose Nirvana as the jumping-off point instead of Smashing Pumpkins. The musical output of Billy Corgan and Co. was much more progressive and provided more potential artistic avenues than that of Cobain, Grohl and Novoselic. Fans of Nirvana got dozens of soundalike bands to help them through their grief. Fans of Smashing Pumpkins got…more Smashing Pumpkins.
For those who wish there was more Corgan to go around, I present to you The Empty Mirror’s Abstracted Catholic Opus (they refuse to label it an EP). Fuse the early nineties sound of Pumpkins with some modern production values and a bit of indie-rock pompousness, and you’ve got Abstracted Catholic. If you’re a fan of Corgan, you are allowed to foam at the mouth a bit. If you’re decidedly anti-Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, you may need to look away now.
These five songs are short, punchy and full of attitude. While bandleader Grant Valdes is cut from the same cloth as Corgan in terms of pretentiousness and guitar aesthetic, these songs are not mere Pumpkins rip-offs. There’s a modern indie aesthetic attached to these songs that’s hard to put a finger on until you listen to Pumpkins songs for contrast. The mood of Abstracted Catholic (which the one-sheet calls nightmericana, interestingly) is highly important and carefully developed through use of bass, neutral space, and other songwriting mechanisms. The Empty Mirror isn’t just pounding out the rock with a grating sneer over it (as the other band I keep mentioning revels in doing). They’re writing songs, not just rock songs.
When all is said and done, fans of Smashing Pumpkins will find much to love here. Fans of thoughtful indie rock can find things to appreciate as well, as Valdes is a good songwriter. There’s a lot of ways that The Empty Mirror can go to break away from the Pumpkins comparisons, as the band has left a lot of loose ends of their sound unexplored. I’m not sure, however, if that’s something they want to break away from. Interesting, but not long-term listening.
Victor Bravo upholds the myth that all you need to make rock is a couple guys, some instruments, and a garage. Forget all of the computerized and technological enhancements of today’s commercially successful music. With obvious influence from bands such as Nirvana and Hüsker Dü, Victor Bravo’s latest album, Hammer Meets Fire, doesn’t disappoint.
Since 2006, the Brooklyn-based band has been pleasing the ears of punk and garage rock fans alike. The addictive, angst-filled tunes of Hammer Meets Fire fulfill everything that the New York club scene has become infamous for. This album embodies the anthem of punk, obvious from various track title such as: “Scary Mary,” “God Bless the USA,” and “Motherfucker.” The vintage vocals combined with quality musicianship make the band worthy of getting out of the garage and into your ears. Favorite tunes include “Into Debt,” and the first single off the record, “Jagged Cross.”
The listener won’t be able to help but imagine a room full of sweaty bodies hurling themselves around in rhythm to the songs. The simple yet hilariously angry lyrics will make you crack up or reversely, give you the urge to punch a hole in the wall. Either way, the record is a fun listen.
When someone says “Seattle scene,” my thoughts instantly jump to Nirvana, Soundgarden, and any whatever-have-you grunge band.
Flash forward to the Seattle of the 2000s, and you will find the power pop scene. In that scene, there is a wonderful band called Shake Some Action! which plays some sweet pop songs which shine like the sun in otherwise cloudy Seattle.
Sunny Days Ahead is the second album by Shake Some Action! I haven’t listened to the first, but the strength of this one makes me want to pick it up. Being part of a genre called “power pop,” Shake Some Action! is expectedly very catchy. Now, I don’t listen to super-catchy music very often, but just listening to Sunny Days Ahead makes me think this is a wrong lifestyle choice. Catchy music is amazing because it’s so happy-sounding and can really lift your mood. It’s bands like Shake Some Action! that give me faith that there are plenty of bands out there who can craft pop masterpieces, even if they mostly go unnoticed.
Shake Some Action! seem to be drawing inspiration from the Monkees, early Beatles, the Beach Boys…pretty much any super catchy ’60s music group. Now take the harder edge of the Kinks, and add it to some roughness from punk. And voila, you have their brand of power pop.
Shake Some Action! is hardly the only power pop band around, but it’s the only one I’ve heard. The music style is reminscent of early R.E.M. for being so jangly and fun, probably along the lines of R.E.M’s Life’s Rich Pageant and Green. I’m almost tempted to call them a more fun version of R.E.M that doesn’t really mess around with all the heavy and cryptic lyrics.
This album was entirely recorded by one person – James Hall, who played drums, two guitar parts, and bass for the recording. This quite impressive feat goes to show Hall’s musical talent. For live shows, Hall has recruited a band that now frequently plays shows in the Seattle area. Now, if only they got a little bigger and did a tour which came through Oklahoma.
The album is short mostly because the songs are short. These are pop songs, and are meant to be brief and fun. The lyrics don’t really talk about anything deep, but don’t mistake that to mean they don’t talk about anything meaningful. They mostly deal with the theme that makes any pop song great: love. I would call the lyrics familiar rather than cliche.
I recommend Sunny Days Ahead to anyone looking for something poppy, fast-paced, and fun. It’s easy to enjoy as there’s not really much to wrap your head around. Just sit back and have fun!
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.