Let’s just get this out of the way before we delve into it a little deeper- CJ Ramone’s The Holy Spell is a fantastic punk rock record. It channels the sound made famous by four guys from New York who loved their leather jackets and short songs and does so with great success. Owing perhaps, to the fact that the Ramones are timeless, it manages to come across as current too. What it isn’t, like much of millennial punk rock and pop punk; is tired, terribly depressed, or burdened by the woe-is-me sound of being an absolute bummer. Ok, that’s done, let’s go.
The Holy Spell, CJ’s follow-up to 2017’s American Beauty, is 12 songs of 60s beat influenced punk rock songs that swerve into surf rock, country, and blues. The songs punch with acerbic melody, accentuated by CJ’s easy-on-the-ears vocals and his penchant for writing inescapable hooks that’ll have you singing in no time. From the opening “One High One Low” to the terrific “This Town”, The Holy Spell would fit in very nicely to the Ramones catalog but does better as a continuation of what CJ has been doing as a solo artist; a natural progression from American Beauty. “This Town” is a track of particular note. Its simplicity and laser-like precision accomplish in its tight 2:24 runtime more than most punk rock bands are able to do in an entire album. It is impossible to like punk rock and not like this song.
Songs like “Hands of Mine” takes on a more country-tinged outlook; rustic, and a little more serene. “Stand Up” glosses in its more bubblegum doo-wop, side-by-side and hand-in-hand with the equally bouncy “Postcard from Heaven”.
Most importantly though, much of The Holy Spell deals with a lot of relatable topics like life, death, hope and getting on with things. Yet CJ does them all without the desperate, self-centered plight of the Instagram generation. Instead of trying to shape the world he lives in, CJ does what any good musician and songwriter does- cope, understand, thrive in it. The album closes with the terrific Americana-flavored, gospel-esque tribute to the departed Steve Soto of Agent Orange/Adolescents. It may start on a sad tone, but like much of the album takes life’s hardships with the “fuck it, let’s rock on” mantra that makes the song an enduring one. I can only hazard a guess, but I think Soto would have been proud of this song.
In “Blue Skies” CJ sings, amongst its slight melancholy, about “doing your best to do your best”. With its sweet hooks and melodies, the song encapsulates in the simplest way you can to “smile when you’re feeling good” because “when the wheel spins round / let the good times roll / they’ll be back like I told you they would”. Uncomplicated and assured, they are lessons for all to learn taught by minimalist rhythm guitars and a good beat.
There is much to appreciate in The Holy Spell. It is the kind of punk rock record that’s hard to put down and hard to dislike. But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that one of the best punk rock records of the year was written by someone named ‘Ramone’.
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Every last time: Revisiting Gameface’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”
A glorious sound of a time gone by
Southern California’s Gameface were always a band that seemed perfect just below the cusp. Their brand of pop-tinged punk was somewhere in between the melancholy driven emo of the early 1990s to what would become of radio-friendly punk bands evolving from the Jimmy Eat Worlds of the… world.
I loved this band. It was songs like “My Star” and “When You’ve Had Enough” that captured my attention. They didn’t fit in with the punk explosion of the mid-90s and had more melodic chops than those that remained in the underground with bands like Quicksand and Texas is the Reason (the latter being the most musically similar).
To this day, I count their track “How Far Is Goodbye?” as one I can listen to on any given day and still feel the same way about it as I did years ago. It’s a glorious sound of a time gone by, and Jeff Caudill, who has been the backbone of their songwriting since the beginning, has still got the chops his ilk can only dream of. There’s a tinge of melancholy that conjures up a certain sadness, a scene in a movie where the protagonist is making their exit into the distance as the scene closes. Something about the song, the sentiment, and the lyrics that always reminds of driving away while looking at the rear view mirror.
Five years ago Gameface released a new album, Now Is What Matters, an album that perfectly encapsulated their ability to write with emotion, melody, and magnetism that only a select few seem to possess. I interviewed frontman Jeff Caudill before the album came out to chat about the band, an interview I think still holds up. Caudill has been busy since then with a lot of solo material, while the band themselves have been releasing music sporadically (mostly singles) since 2014.
While their catalog is deep, there’s one song I keep coming back to, and that’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”. Originally released on the split 10″ vinyl with Errortype: 11 in 2000, the song received an update in 2018, which you can hear below.
Gameface photo from Gameface facebook page.