Osaka Popstar is essentially John Cafiero and a bunch of his friends; but more on that in a bit. First, John Cafiero is the guy who produced the Misfits’ Project 1950 and directed and produced of the Ramones documentary Raw DVD. He also directed the Insane Clown Posse’s Big Money Hustla$ (note the usage of the dollar sign instead of the letter “s”), which serves as further proof that everybody makes bad decisions sometimes. Back to the part about Cafiero’s friends; he’s got some good ones. Cafiero enlisted Dez Cadena (Black Flag), Jerry Only (the Misfits), Marky Ramone (the Ramones, obviously), and Ivan Julian (Richard Hell & the Voidoids). It’s a very impressive line-up, but unfortunately a (dare I say) super-group of punk rock icons doesn’t generate the same excitement as it would have 10 years ago.
Which is a travesty on a couple of levels. The first, simply because they’re the pioneers of punk rock. The second, because Osaka Popstar have made a good, fun record. Osaka Popstar tears through 13 songs in under half an hour. Their style is more Ramones than anything else, delivering melodic pop punk with little variation between songs.
Throughout their self-titled release, Osaka Popstar covers the important things in life: Japanese anime characters and not being able to find a sugary bowl of Cap’n Crunch in the morning. While this may seem like a rather limited range of topics, it’s because half of the record is covers. The cover selection is predictable at times, (Richard Hell twice and X-Ray Spex) however, they also throw in some interesting selections (traditional bluegrass number, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and “Insects” from Kids of Widney High, a group of handicap children who gained cult status since their release, Special Music from Special Kids in 1989.)
Fittingly, the two best songs on the record are covers. The leadoff track, “Wicked World,” a Daniel Johnston cover, is a fantastic three-minute punk-pop song with a great hook that will probably win over a few fans. However, the best song and most interesting cover is “The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t.” The song, from an obscure 1966 movie of the same name, is a short 1:38; but it’s the catchiest song on the record. The verse and chorus both pull you into the “Christmas spirit,” so much that you forget that it’s the middle of summer.
While this record is very fun pop punk, it doesn’t have the lasting power that will make you want to listen repeatedly. As I said earlier, the songs are all melodic, pop punk with little variation, which means they blend together seamlessly. It’s tough to tell songs apart from each other. Additionally, Cafiero’s voice is bland. His voice lacks the snarl and attitude of great punk rock singers, causing his voice to fade into the background, under the precision of the rest of the band.
Osaka Popstar’s And the American Legends of Punk is a record by a bunch of friends who enjoy making music; which is its greatest and weakest point. Osaka Popstar may not be the best record you hear this year, but you’d be pressed to find a more fun one.
(Misfits Records / Rykodisc)
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.
Pine – Pine
Pine’s debut album is a kind of hypnotic melancholia
Where did Ottawa’s Pine come from? It’s a question worth asking after listening to their painfully gorgeous self-titled debut album. Pine use the phrase “doom and gloom never sounded so sweet” to describe their sound, and true to that, this 11-track outing is filled with the kind of hypnotic melancholia that became the playbook for a great many Midwestern emo bands that emerged in the late 90s/early 2000s. The biggest difference here is that while Pine have the heartbreak down pat, their musical sense of loss is lifted slightly by the airy, more wistful sounds of their guitar-strewn songs. Sure, there’s a lot that sounds like a great Mineral record or a Gloria Record album, but there’s also traces of Florida indie/emo band The Rocking Horse Winner and at times, bands like Rainer Maria.
Pine are buoyed by the great vocal work of Darlene Deschamps. Her voice soars through tracks like “Memento” and the terrific “Lusk”. The latter in particular is a great example of how Pine lull you into a sense of calm before it explodes in a collage of symphonic distortion and post-rock twinkling. In “Sunder” they ascend to louder, more expansive sounds. The song is a great combination of thick, fuzzy guitars, mid-tempo percussion work, and that pained vocal delivery that gives the song an extra punch in the guts.
The album took an impressive 2 years to finish, and you can hear the trials and tribulations of that gestation period through the songs. There’s pain, sadness, anger and frustration in songs like the intro “Within You” and the more new emo-esque “Swollen”, but also beauty, and as the album concludes, a sense of incredible catharsis. The record SOUNDS great too, with production values (by a production team that includes Will Yip, who has helmed records by Circa Survive, Braid, Saosin, and the Bouncing Souls to name a few) adding to the grand cinematic finish of the record.
For those who love what emo was in the mid to late 90s will find much to like about Pine just as much as those who like Explosions in the Sky and their post-rock brethren. Pine have been crafting their sound over the last few years and while their previous EP Pillow Talk showed a solid foundation, this new self-titled record is the work of a band close to the height of their abilities. Moving, beautiful, and littered with life’s roller coaster of emotions as songs, Pine is definitely recommended listening.