There are 2 weeks left of 2012, and I’ve still got around 25 albums I’d like to comment on. So I’m going to blaze through 5 or 6 per post and try not to get wordy. In this one: MxPx, Cancer Bats, Pennywise, Off!, Matt Skiba and the Sekrets, and Best Coast.
MxPx – Plans Within Plans
Apr. 3rd, Rock City Recording Company
Signifying the 20 year mark of their career, MxPx’s 10th studio album comes at a time when the band seems to be winding down. After 15 years without a lineup change, founding drummer Yuri Ruley declared his retirement from the group in 2010 to spend more time with his family. Guitarist Tom Wisniewski holds down a full-time job these days, while singer/bassist Mike Herrera has been spending more time on his alt-country project Tumbledown. MxPx’s releases of the last few years were a covers album, an EP, and a compilation of their Christmas singles. Their touring lineup of late has generally been Herrera backed by hired guns from other bands, billed as the “MxPx All-Stars” (despite the fact that none of the other players were ever actually in MxPx).
None of that slowing down seems evident on Plans Within Plans, though. The band sounds as energized as they were on 2007’s Secret Weapon, and the album is full of their high-energy pop-punk that made that album and 2005’s Panic so enjoyable. Ruley’s retirement declaration must have been premature, because he played on the album as well as on several tours. Stephen Egerton of the Descendents and All mixed and mastered Plans, and lends his guitar chops to solos on “Far Away” and “In the Past”. Herrera brings one of his bouncier basslines to the fore on “The Times”, while “In the Past” has the rollicking pace of the band’s ’90s material. “Best of Times” finds Herrera waxing nostalgic: “All that snow with no place to go / Can’t make practice, can’t go to a show / I love life now, but those were the best of times” . “Lucky Guy” is classic MxPx; a revved-up pop-punk love song. The fiery lead single “Far Away” will definitely please the longtime fans. “When It Comes to You” is a breakup song with an incredibly catchy bridge. The band isn’t breaking new ground here, but they haven’t lost any steps, either; Plans rocks with the best of their back catalog and seems to have flowed seamlessly from their last couple of records. 4/5
Cancer Bats – Dead Set on Living
Apr. 16th, Metal Blade Records
Album no. 4 by these Toronto metalcore (emphasis on the metal) enthusiasts finds them focusing a bit more on riffage than on past efforts. The first impression left by opener “R.A.T.S.” is that it’s similar to “Sleep This Away”, the opening track on 2010’s Bears, Mayors, Scraps & Bones, in that it’s slowed-down and somewhat trudging. Not quite to the sludge-metal level of Black Flag’s My War (’84), but there’s definitely a Black Sabbath influence coming through; not surprising considering Cancer Bats have done several Sabbath tribute sets in the last year under the name Bat Sabbath. The chorus “There’s a special place in hell for people like you!” shows that singer Liam Cormier has lost none of his bile, even though the title track indicates that he’s recently given up an intoxicant-fueled live-fast-die-young lifestyle: “The day the doctor told me ‘son you’re gonna die / If you continue to live like this, you got another year at best’ / I decided right then and there to get dead set on living”
“Bricks and Mortar” runs on a classic galloping metal rhythm that immediately evokes “The Lost Vikings” by cartoon band Dethklok, but in Cancer Bats’ hands it doesn’t sound played-out at all, hitting hard and making it one of the disc’s strongest tracks. “Road Sick” turns up the tempo and features some sick riffing throughout. “The Void” is the most Sabbath/Flag-esque number, with a chorus to match its dark, sludgy pace (“On the ocean floor / Dark as night, so alone / Forgot I was drowning”) before the fierce “Old Blood” comes in to rip things up. All told, DSOL doesn’t hit with the same impact as 2008’s Hail Destroyer, going more for churning, pulsing riffs than wild abandon. In doing so it has less of an immediate impact, though if you like your metal heavy then it should grow on you. I’ve definitely gotten more out of it with repeat listens. 4/5
Pennywise – All or Nothing
May 1st, Epitaph Records
Pennywise had a lot to prove with All or Nothing. By the mid-2000s they’d fallen into a rut, and tried to shake things up by releasing 2008’s Reason to Believe for free through Myspace. That wasn’t enough to reinvigorate the band, though, and founding singer Jim Lindberg left the following year. He subsequently launched the very Pennywise-like The Black Pacific and featured in last year’s film The Other F Word, heavily based on his 2007 book Punk Rock Dad. Pennywise filled his spot with Zoli Téglás of Ignite, but for the last couple years have been playing songs from the back catalog. Coming off their longest-ever gap between albums, All or Nothing had to prove not only that Pennywise could transition effectively to a new frontman 24 years into their career, but that they were even still relevant.
By and large, the album meets these marks. While the band isn’t really doing anything different musically, maintaining their speedy hardcore/skate-punk sound and sociopolitical themes, they do sound revitalized. A lot of this comes from Téglás: known for his tremendous vocal ability, his crystal-clear singing lends a much-needed vigor to the proceedings, especially on the wordier portions of lead single “Let Us Hear Your Voice”. By all accounts the recording process was a battle, with the members occasionally at each others’ throats, and this results in a more energetic vibe to the record than the last couple of Pennywise efforts. The album runs at typical breakneck speed from start to finish, through political calls-to-arms like “Revolution” and “X Generation” and empowerment anthems like “Stand Strong” and “We Have It All”. While these are far from new themes for Pennywise, their conviction sounds renewed when delivered with a fresh voice.
Unfortunately All or Nothing will likely be Téglás only album with Pennywise; he’s been sidelined by back problems, so Lindberg has rejoined the band. Nothing against Lindberg, but it’s too bad Téglás’ tenure with the band was so short, and produced only one record, when it seems to have given them such a shot in the arm. 4/5
Off! – Off!
May 8th, Vice Records
In a mere 16 minutes (and as many tracks), Off! have once again produced the best hardcore album of the last 10 years, showing all those whippersnappers how it’s done. Fronted by Keith Morris (ex-Black Flag & Circle Jerks) and featuring members of Redd Kross, Burning Brides, Rocket from the Crypt, and Hot Snakes, Off! has pedigree and credibility to spare. This eponymously-titled full length (if you can call it that) picks up right where 2010’s First Four EPs left off—firmly in the realm of late ’70s/early ’80s hardcore—with plenty of volume, energy, and aggression. Of course, plenty of hardcore bands had those qualities in spades but churned out shitty, hollow, and repetitive music. Not so for Off!, since the members’ collective experience keeps the songs tight even while they’re totally frenetic. There’s more chops and vitriol in a sub-minute track like “Borrow and Bomb” than in most hardcore bands’ entire catalogs.
Morris saves some of his best bile for his former Black Flag bandmate Greg Ginn, as in “Feelings Are Meant to Be Hurt” where he describes his acrimonious split from the band: “Refuse to be undervalued / Or shown a lack of respect / You pushed me in a corner / What did you expect?” In “I Got News for You” he attacks Ginn for never paying royalties to any other members of the band: “We trudged through sweat and piss / Were never paid for this / You bet I’ve got something against you too!” (that last line referencing “You Bet We’ve Got Something Personal Against You!”, the song Ginn and bassist Chuck Dukowski wrote lambasting Morris for quitting). Then there’s “Cracked”, where he references meetings he and Ginn had ten years ago concerning a possible Black Flag reunion: Ginn, who’d gotten heavily into weed and and taken the Flag down a sludgy metal path in its final years, insisted that the band’s early material had been played too fast, as if some of the most iconic hardcore songs of all time needed to be slowed down. “My night with Lurch at the garbage dump / Being played for a chump” Morris sings of the meeting, “Are you kidding? We were playing too fast? / Have you been smoking pot or is your head up your ass?”
Off!’s ferocity doesn’t end on record, either: I saw them play just a few days after this album came out, and lemme tell ya, they fucking bring it onstage. Morris has a ton of energy for a 57 year-old diabetic, even if his dreads are falling out. And check out their hilarious music videos, like the one where Jack Black rips out Mario Rubalcaba’s heart or where Dave Foley plays host of an early-’80s talking-with-teens show. Kudos also go to Raymond Pettibon, whose fantastic cover art adorned my most-worn and most-complimented t-shirt this year. In an age when even so-called “punk” music is market-calculated, overproduced, and watered-down, Off! remind us that all you need to be punk as fuck are some instruments, 45 seconds, and something to be pissed off about. Of course, decades of experience doesn’t hurt either. 5/5
Matt Skiba and the Sekrets – Babylon
May 8th, Superball Music
Babylon is Skiba’s second non-Alkaline Trio release this year, following The Hell’s EP (reviewed in part 1). It’s a solo effort in that Skiba wrote all the songs, but he’s not the only one who plays on it; his backing band the Sekrets includes AFI’s Hunter Burgan and My Chemical Romance’s Jarrod Alexander. Several of these tracks had their beginnings on 2010’s Demos and are fleshed out to full-band efforts here, including “Haven’t You?”, “How the Hell Did We Get Here?”, “Angel of Deaf”, and “Olivia” [formerly titled “Nausea (Cruel and Usual)”]. “Falling Like Rain” also bears obvious similarities to “Eating Me Alive” from the Trio’s 2010 album This Addiction.
The album is rooted in Skiba’s typical dark-tinged punk, but with a pop sheen brought on by new wave-ish elements that recall The Cure or The Killers in places. “Voices” , “Luciferian Blues”, and “You” successfully follow the formula of chugging verses/soaring choruses. “How the Hell Did We Get Here?” builds on a moodier, goth-y melody during its verses before launching into one hell of a chorus. Closer “Angel of Deaf” strips things down to little more than Skiba and an acoustic guitar before fading into 3½ minutes of near-silence. Setting aside the weird headdress and Adam Ant look Skiba adopted for the press photos and tours, Babylon is the best stuff he’s delivered in some time, much of it better than his material on This Addiction. Sure, it sounds very close to latter-day Alkaline Trio, and his best non-Trio project remains Heavens (2006–08), but it’s good nonetheless. The “discbox slider” packaging is pretty neat too. 4/5
Best Coast – The Only Place
May 15th, Mexican Summer
Indie rock duo Best Coast (singer/guitarist Bethany Cosentino and multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno) are in the vein of groups like She & Him and Rilo Kiley, both for their female singer/male rhythm section dynamic and Cosentino’s early career as a child actress. The Only Place is a sunny, jangly love letter to her home state of California, with a classic ’60s pop sheen courtesy of producer Jon Brion. The uptempo numbers (the title track, “Why I Cry”, “Let’s Go Home”) bounce and bop with hooky guitars, charming vocals, and simple lyrics. The moodier ballads (“Last Year”, “No One Like You”, “How They Want Me to Be”) sound dreamy and warm.
I’ve read other reviews criticizing the cutesy lyrics and and the departure from the band’s previous fuzzy, lo-fi sound in favor of shimmery pop, but I’d never heard Best Coast before so these things didn’t bother me, and I found the lyrics charming, such as “What a year this day has been/ What a day this year has been”. Sure, the the overall sound is retro-hipster, but it’s so unabashed that it comes off as genuine rather than pretentious. A catchy album perfect for California summers. 4/5