Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Impossibles - Anthology (1999)

Fueled by Ramen (1999)
Taking their name from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, the punk-ska act the Impossibles formed in 1994 in Austin, Texas. They slowly built up a local following and released a self-titled LP in 1997 on the Fueled by Ramen label and followed up with the Back for the Attack EP in 1998. Citing internal pressure and college plans, the Impossibles called it quits shortly after their EP, but managed to posthumously develop a strong national following. Demand for their recorded material grew and availability dropped, so in 1999 Fueled by Ramen issued Anthology, a compilation of the LP, EP and several unreleased tracks from pre-’97 recordings. They reunited in 2000 (sans ska) to tour and release Return in 2000 before ultimately disbanding in 2002.

Anthology innovatively blends Weezer’s characteristic loud/soft shifts, catchy choruses, and “nerdy” lyrics with the underground ethos and ska beats of punk-ska pioneers Operation Ivy. The thrashing guitars, poppy melodies, and infectious lyrics of the choruses play off of the subdued upbeats and introspection of the verses to great effect. Complemented by driving bridges, dueling vocals, and healthy doses of “oohs and aahs,” the Impossibles craft multiple anthems that teeter on the edge between fiercely local punk band and three-minute pop-rock radio fare. Lyrically, the Impossibles tend to reflect sincerely on what they knew best: the awkward adolescent years. Authentic themes of self-doubt, failed relationships, and growing up “uncool” drip off of Anthology without coming off as whiny or preachy (as so much 2000s rock did). Every track from the 1997-8 recordings emanates effortless catchiness, but “Eightball,” “Erin with an E,” “So Much” and “Priorities Intact” especially stand out. 


Listeners fed up with the typical ‘90s alternative sound or eager for something truly revolutionary should probably look elsewhere; the Impossibles have a formula and they stick to it for the most part. While they may take an approach to punk-ska steeped in mid-’90s traditions, the Impossibles absolutely nail the execution and infuse each track with their quirky charm. Simply put, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts here. Anthology may not reinvent the wheel, but it oozes personality and delivers anthemic punk-ska in a huge way.



Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Jack's Smirking Revenge - Order/Disorder (2011)

Alex Pelissero started recording his own music under the moniker Jack’s Smirking Revenge around 2008 and pressed 25 copies of his first EP, Bitter Songs for Bitter People, in 2010. He returned with more new material in 2011 with Order/Disorder and Sluttering in quick succession and continues to release weekly songs through Jack’s Smirking Revenge’s Facebook page. The Boulder, CO. native creates a unique folk-punk sound finding inspiration in The Clash, Johnny Cash and above all, whiskey. Sounding not unlike Against Me! sans shouting, Order/Disorder presents a rough and unpolished collection of catchy, upbeat and occasionally inspiring punk addled rock tracks.

Lyrically, Alex is at his best when he sticks to everyday lower-middle-class themes. He shines when he muses about how we sometimes like “skipping work and skipping class” and how we dream about giving “a finger to our landlords” or “punching bosses instead of the clock.” However, he does find some success in loftier political themes; the extended metaphor in “1-2-Fuck you Shuffle” is simply brilliant. Along with truly deep hooks and a catchy melody, the opening track calls for the toppling of the “wanna be kings and queens, military aces and their jack-asses” instead of “just another shuffling of the deck.”

Musically Alex hits his stride with toe-tapping melody infused anthems. Relishing in bare bones simplicity, songs stay to the point but are engaging and accessible. “Get your Kicks on Route 666” takes some time to build up the tempo from a more contemplative pace for a effective mix-up near the record’s end.

An uneven effort, Order/Disorder leaves something to be desired at times. On a few sporadic tracks, Alex’s charmingly rough and raw style of vocals and guitar work comes off as just sloppy and unpolished. Some songs also get into trouble when they approach more heavyweight themes and move away from the (more successfully implemented) down-to-earth lyrical style.

Looking at the whole of Order/Disorder, Jack's Smirking Revenge comes out ahead and shows promise for the future. If you can get past the nonexistent production values and a few lackluster or sloppy songs, a rewarding musical experience emerges. Anyone willing to look past Alex’s “do it yourself” rawness will discover a host of clever and honest songs with deep hooks and infectious melodies.

Head here to download the EP for *free* (or a small donation if you're so inclined).

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Grim Luck - Alexandra Volume 2: The Dread (2011)

Grim Luck formed in San Diego, California sometime between 2004-6; legends and internet rumors vary. Standing head and shoulders above the rest, Grim Luck has led the San Diego ska scene for several years with their unique sound which blends dark, minor tonality ska with folk, hardcore and anything else they can mesh together using their markedly varied instrumentation. In their first three albums, Grim Luck wrote songs that pushed the boundaries of 3rd Wave ska, albeit in the dark sounding and calculatingly paced direction that Streetlight Manifesto pioneered. However, with Alexandra Vol. 2: The Dread, Grim Luck breaks nearly all of their ties to the bright, crisp melodies of the 90’s and forges their own identity without losing any of their hectic energy, unique song writing and fiercely underground ethos.

In place of bright, clean and simple riffs and melodies, a la 90’s 3rd Wave Ska, Grim Luck crafts a dark, hectic (always on the verge of sloppy) and layered sounding ska blended with folk and hardcore. The horn section usually carries the melody and engages the listener with interesting melodies, both new and familiar. Unique instrumentation (cello, accordion and banjo) add depth and variety to songs but sometimes verge one gimmicky. Grim Luck hits their stride when their massive horn section pumps out brooding melodies through songs like “Odessa!!” and “Monarchs Can’t Dance!!” Vocally, Rob and Erich bare their souls belting out authentically inane lyrics oddly focused on vintage nautical imagery. Wisely, they keep their lyrics out of the overly “zany” and “wacky” territory of the 3rd wave. Vol. 2 has much tighter and more together sound than the often loose and sloppy Vol. 1. This strips away some of Grim Luck’s “small time” charm, but, ultimately, greatly improves the band’s sound overall.

Grim Luck’s maturation as a band and movement away from the formulaic sound of 3rd Wave Ska does come at a price, however. The increased presence of the horn section largely eliminates the catchy choruses of yore, to the album’s detriment. Only “The Dread...” evokes the sing-along choruses of “Bouquet of Lillies” and “College/Going to Santa Barbara”. Also, the band’s massive ensemble leads to a lot of instruments doubling up on parts. The bari-sax, cello and bass often follow the same bass line (and occasionally needlessly clutter it) while the horns almost always play in unison on the melody. A more layered approach that has the horns playing off of and against each other (polyphony) would really step things up an notch. Borrowing some plays from Keasbey Nights would be a great start.

If Reel Big Fish is “Green Day with horns,” then (very approximately) Grim Luck is Gogol Bordello with horns- plus a cello, accordion and banjo. At times, the sheer size of Grim Luck’s ensemble seems paradoxically cluttered and minimalist while pushing aside the infectious choruses of older albums. However, Grim Luck manages to craft a truly unique and engaging sound from a largely stagnant genre with impressive results. They have quite possibly created the most unique recording to ever with the words punk or ska attached. Anyone looking for a wonderfully original and truely engaging sound will love Alexandra Volume 2: The Dread.

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Grim Luck supports free music.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

NOFX - Punk in Drublic (1994)

In 1994, Californian post-hardcore punk rock broke into the American musical mainstream. Rancid had a radio single and major label offers, Green Day had MTV music videos and The Offspring's Smash went multi-platinum. NOFX's Punk in Drublic may have failed to meet the commercial success of the other '94 punk albums, but it is without a doubt one of the tightest, well written and "punkest" albums ever recorded.

NOFX, veterans of Epitaph Records since 1989, had spent the better part of a decade touring, recording and honing their sound when they finally cut their magnum opus in '94. It's tight, fast, refreshingly witty; in a word, it's punk. Songs like "Linoleum" and "Happy Guy" show their hardcore roots with high tempos, deep hooks and short track times while "Reeko" and "My Heat is Yearning"expand the group's approach without slowing down the overall flow of the album. "Get in, get out" may be too traditional for some bands, but NOFX really makes 17 tracks in 39 minutes work here. Lyrically, singer Fat Mike aptly criticizes American society and government, lampoons the commercialization of the punk scene and even takes time to defend the homeless and "adult actresses" without getting preachy or heavy handed. It's fast, clever, insightful and simply a fun album to listen to. With a history of writing anti-commercial songs, it almost seems as if NOFX did everything they could to write an amazing punk album that could stay off the radio at a time when DJ's scoured the nation for the next Green Day.

Punk in Drublic failed where other similar release succeeded not because it's a bad record, but because it doesn't have any singles or anthems. It has the punk attack, snarkyness and oozin' ahs that mark the breakout records, but lacks the catchy sing-along tracks that got MTV airtime. Regardless, if you like punk, you'll love Punk in Drublic. For the uninitiated, it's also a great place to start, especially if you think that "Longview" is edgy.

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Read the expanded review, complete with looks at the histories of NOFX and '90s punk rock, at *Wrestlemania*!!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Bad Religion - No Control (1989)

After reforming in 1987, Bad Religion released an astonishing three albums in just three years, Suffer (1988) No Control (1989) and Against the Grain (1990), collectively known to fans as the "Holy Trinity." As and a hardcore punk release from almost 21 years ago, listeners might wonder how No Control could possibly be relevant in the 21st Century. Well, through No Control (and the rest of the "Trinity"), not only did Bad Religion keep punk alive and evolving for the 90's, but they also had an incalculable influence on the entire 90's alternative scene from Nirvana all the way down to Blink-182. History aside though, No Control is simply a great album and a sonic treat for anyone willing to listen.

From the opening drum count-off to the final ring of electric guitars, No Control refuses to stop. Bad Religion's punk attack is nothing short of vicious and present in the raging drumming and blisteringly fast guitar work, especially on tracks like "You," "No Control" and "I Want to Conquer the World." Not wasting any time on overdrawn intros or repeated choruses, songs start and stop on a dime and cram massive amounts of music into compact spaces; only one track on the entire album passes the 2:30 mark. Singer Greg Graffin belts out themes on the the bleakness of the future with passion and conviction that inspires the listener to action, and backing vocals provide just enough harmony a la the band's trademark "Oozin' Ahhs" (see "Sanity") to make it accessible. Lyrically, Graffin crafts his trademark intelligent and meaningful verses that don't get too bogged down by SAT vocabulary as much as later albums.

The criticism of No Control are the ones that critics apply to BR's whole discography and punk in general. If you think that all BR songs sound the same, then some tracks (the last few) will seem to blend together. Some will also argue that the sub-1 minute songs take punk simplicity too far to a fault, and they're probably right. And while it isn't as bad here as on later albums, esoteric lyrics like "Is your fecundity a trammel or a treasure" are nothing more than Graffin's intellectual flexing. However, taken as a whole, No Control is punk at its best. The fact that a solid third of the album makes it to the "Greatest Hits" compilation All Ages (with the notable exception of fan-favorite "You") illustrates the shear consistency and depth of the album if nothing else. Fans of punk and Bad Religion will instantly fall in love with the No Control and newcomers should absolutely take the time to listen to 26 minutes of some of the most passionate and inspiring punk ever written.

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