The Sonics – “This is the Sonics”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “I Don’t Need No Doctor” “Save the Planet”

Does history repeat itself, or do things never change?

Fans of My Bloody Valentine, Guns N’ Roses and the Stooges are breathing a sigh of relief. “At least I’m not a Sonics fan.” “This is the Sonics” now takes the cake as the longest time in between albums. It’s the first album from the band’s original line-up in 49 years, and they play like nothing’s changed. Although the members are now in their 70’s, they’re still playing incendiary pre-punk garage rock.

This album plays like a movie in a series that ignores the films that came before it. The Fast and Furious series ignores Toyko Drift, like the film never happened. Except that in the world of the Sonics, what hasn’t happened is punk, disco, new wave, hip-hop, metal, boy bands, and everything else since “Sgt. Pepper”. The Sonics play like they’re still the forefront of music, something that would be vain if it mattered. In reality, it’s an incredibly refreshing listen. The band blow through 12 garage instant-classics in 32 minutes, each as good as the last.

All of the instruments work off each other on the album – there’s no competition for value. This is partly garage-rock mentality, and partially due to the record being recorded in mono. The producer, the legendary Jim Diamond, does little more than hit the start and stop buttons, just recording the band live. To add any flourishes, or to clean the sound up, would do the band injustice. Instead, the band is recorded as they should be – geared up, roaring with a possibly vampiric energy that some bands can’t match when they’re young.

There’s only really two nods to the fact that the Sonics aren’t still in 1966. The first is the inclusion of horns, something that wasn’t in the band until entirely different iterations of the Sonics played into the 70’s. The other is the late-album “Save the Planet,” which addresses global warming in the most Sonics way possible, by letting us know Earth is the only planet with booze. “Reality’s for people who don’t know how to drink,” Jerry Roslie sings, daring us to ignore his age.

The Sonics still have a cynical edge to their lyrics, a cynicism that separated them from the more party-hardy garage acts of the 60’s. There’s a relatively harmless causal sexism to the lyrics, much like the 60’s, as well as songs like “I Got Your Number,” with “I’ve Got Your Number, and it’s 666” sung in an offhand way. By convincing themselves that 60’s garage rock still wants to be heard, they’ve convinced us that lyrics like this are still surprising. “This is the Sonics” boasts a very 60’s throwaway album title (like “The Who Sings My Generation”), but it’s also very literal – this is them, all these years later. And to anyone that wasn’t around then, this is what they were. And it’s what they still are. 2015 hasn’t stopped throwing surprises at us, and a wholly rocking new Sonics album is something none of us expected.

If you like this, try: early garage rock like this has a big influence on the Burger Records type surf-punk bands, try Japanther at their more direct (“Surfin’ Coffin”).

-By Andrew McNally

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Phooey! – “A Collection of Sins”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “This Ain’t No Picnic” “Charted Trips”

Just a few weeks ago I compared and contrasted two albums done by Phooey!, praising the pseudo-collective for both the diversity of their music and the speed that they put out releases. And indeed, “A Collection of Sins” shows both – it’s a full-length, coming out on the heels of an EP and a split, and this time, it’s a little more baroque and psych-pop than it is noise/pop/twee/punk. And Phooey!, an ever-changing band, exists on this album solely as bandleader Nikita. It’s an 18 song collection of some covers and some originals, not aligning as much to any sort of subgenre than their past releases, instead making itself resemble a collection of vignettes. Only one song, “This Ain’t No Picnic,” is over three minutes, and nine are under two. The album’s strongest quality is probably how much it feels like someone in their bedroom, playing some little songs they’ve learned along the way.

There’s a lot going on during this album, a number of different ideas. “This Ain’t No Picnic,” the album’s first real song (after a Bugs Bunny soundclip intro), is calm and heavy on background percussion instruments. It has a baroque resemblance, without any of the grand ambitions. “Waiting Room,” is closer to psych-pop, “Charted Trips” is an acoustic semi-ballad and “Unfinished” sounds more like some of Phooey!’s earlier pop-punkish tunes. And “Rebel Gurrrl” is a much weirder, somewhat psychedelic finish to the album. In between are a number of alt-pop and fuzzy guitar songs, all ideas that don’t stick around too long.

“A Collection of Sins” is a pleasant album, the sound of a man recording some music in his alone time, messing around with the Replacements and Sam Cooke, among others. Each song is like a small offering of what Phooey! does, some more different than others. And at only 35 minutes, the “collection” feel to it doesn’t get too quick or repetitive. Not every song is as memorable as the album’s best, but since they’re all samples, it’s easy to overlook the less grabbing ones. So overall, it’s a fun release, just as varying as Phooey! is in general, and a good mix of covers and originals. If Phooey! was avoiding falling into any genre of music before, they certainly are now.

The album is available for stream and download here.

If you like this, try: Last time I compared Phooey!, as a whole, to Japanther. But this album’s varying style of vignettes is much more reminiscent of Guided By Voices and their offshoot, Swearing at Motorists.

Japanther – “Instant Money Magic”

(Photo Credit: blastoutyourstereo.com)

Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Dreams Come True” “Vicious”

The other day I wrote about how the Menzingers’ followed a perfect album with one that copies the format. I praised it, because it’s a band fleshing out their image. But there is an inverse of that, and it’s what Japanther has become. Japanther found a signature sound long ago, and since then they’ve copied it to the point where it’s become diluted. “Instant Money Magic” is a surefired fun album, but one that brings nothing to the table for a band that used to specialize in that.

“Instant Money Magic,” the band’s 23rd official release in a 13 year span, is an improvement over last year’s LP “Eat Like Lisa Act Like Bart.” But just like that album, the band’s sound has become indescribably repetitive. Japanther formed as a riotous art-punk band, often basing songs around soundclips and doing performances in unique locales, but over the past few years they’ve settled into a groove of playing loud, fuzzy, optimistic surf-punk. And it’s never bad, but “Instant Money Magic” is just adding to the pile; we have way too much of a good thing. The band may have peaked with 2010’s great “Rock & Roll Ice Cream,” a short album that still had artsy elements, but presented a more straightforward energy. By now, it’s all energy, and too much of it.

Only three of the album’s fourteen songs stretch over two minutes, meaning Japanther has in no way lost their punk sensibilities. And the album is almost bursting with optimism, with titles like “Dreams Come True,” and songs with fuzzy, bright harmonies. Optimism-punk is not a genre, so in this sense, Japanther have kept it original. Japanther’s last few albums have provided energetic and fun summer soundtracks. But 12 of the 14 songs here sound too identical, all 12 being fast, guitar garage-punk, and they really don’t separate themselves from each other or their last few albums.

Albums like “Instant Money Magic” are a little tough to digest; if this were to be the first Japanther album you hear, it’d probably be a ton of fun, in it’s relentless energy and storytelling optimism. But longtime fans of the band might question their motives, with five largely identical albums in a row making their riotous art only a fond memory. So “Instant Money Magic” is both a quick listen that bridges heavy and fun, and an album that represents nothing new for the band, and feels a little lackluster. They won’t win any new fans, just check another box for their old ones.

If you like this, try: there’s tons of bands that have risen in Japanther’s wake, but my pick is Pangea’s near-perfect 2011 album, “Living Dummy”  (the band now goes as ‘together PANGEA’ but the album is credited to ‘Pangea’)

-By Andrew McNally