Joshua Marcus
Joshua Marcus
In the tradition of Nebraska/Tom Joad-mode Springsteen and Neil Young a la Harvest Moon, New Brunswick singer-songwriter Joshua Marcus offers up twelve gentle, sparse home recordings. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and occasionally bass, and augmented throughout by Tom Bendel's light percussion, Marcus' vocals waver and warble over the stark, stripped-down arrangements. While his voice imbues the music with a warm, compelling sense of emotional urgency, his Dylan-meets-Dave-Matthews vocal delivery makes it difficult to delve very deeply into what these songs are all about. Josh…how about a lyric sheet next time?
(Mike Doktorski, 3/01)

Matt Witte's New Blood Revival

Matt Witte's New Blood Revival
New Brunswick singer-songwriter Matt Witte comes into his own with this brilliant collection of shuffling, folkish sub-Springsteen anthems. The rhythm section of Brett Neilley (bass) and John Swayne (drums) inject Witte's twisted yarns of hookers, boozers, and assorted ne'er do wells with an infectious backbeat, while Andy Chen (saxophone) lights up the arrangements with tasteful, subtle flourishes. But it's Witte himself who steals the show, a post-modern Arlo Guthrie whose colorful characters quickly assume a charm and substance all their own.
(Mike Doktorski, 1/01)

Tris McCall

If One of These Bottles Should Happen To Fall

If concept albums are rare these days, then certainly concept albums concerning obscure New Jersey politicos would be nothing less than a truly iconoclastic addition to the bins of your local record store. But Union City singer/songwriter Tris McCall offers up a work of pure genious with exactly that. In all fairness, "concept album" may be a misnomer for this rock-inflected, punk-tinged, new-wavey collection of recordings loosely connected by its lyrical content. The album is equally enjoyable track-by-track or as a whole. "NJ Dept. of Public Works" mourns the bygone splendor of this now mostly defunct arm of state government (McCall mentions in his well-researched liner notes that the functions of this dept. are now performed largely by municipal governments in NJ), while the poppy "Lite Radio Is My Kryptonite" bemoans the angst of an part time artist and full-time cubicle drone. The music is well-written and executed, but the focus here is rightfully on McCall and his captivating, offbeat storytelling.
(Mike Doktorski, 1/01)

Tris McCall

Shootout at the Sugar Factory
A faux concept album about (of all things) Hudson County NJ, singer/songwriter (and proud Union City resident) Tris McCall examines the eccentricites and neuroses attendant to life in the gravitational well of the world's biggest city on his sophomore effort Shootout at the Sugar Factory. Like 2000's If One Of These Bottles Should Happen To Fall, the quality is a little uneven but where it rocks it ROCKS, particularly on "Machines to Make You Feel Good" and "Night Bus"….imagine the Doors fronted by Michael Hutchence and produced by Brian Eno. Lyrically, Tris casts his net far and wide over the greater metropolitan area to take inspiration from nontraditional sources: obscure state politicos, peculiarites of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, geo-industrial sprawl…you get the picture. No shit, there's nary a love song to be found here. In the final analysis, Shootout at the Sugar Factory might be a bit too brainy for the average metro indie rocker, but if you're an upper middle class, George W-hating white liberal with a pseudo-superiority complex (or you just play one on television)…go buy this disc right now.
(Mike Doktorski, 11/03)

The Milwaukees
The Bland Comfort of Life With Lloyd Justin (EP)
NJ emo-core is a huge scene, with tons of American legion shows, indie promoters, zines, and a devoted following. However, there are possibly more bands than fans these days…all of the kids at these punk shows all seem to be in a band (or several) themselves. On Lloyd Justin, The Milwaukees seek to distance themselves from this pack mainly by being the best act on the fucking circuit, and these six songs convincingly ram this truth home to the masses. The album is not quite as polished as the band's previous effort, Missile Command...there are less instrumental overdubs, and no obvious radio songs. But this is merely an observation, not a criticism. "Sea of Neptune," "Connected," and "The Patriot Song" literally explode out of the speakers. This is art, folks, pure and simple, and extremely well done.
(Mike Doktorski, 1/01)

The Milwaukees

This Is A Stickup
The Milwaukees wowed NJ's indie rock intelligensia back in '99 with their mind-numbingly brilliant second LP Missile Command. Over the next several years, the group endured a seemingly endless series of identity crises, swapping out band members, labels, managers, and producers, and in the process skewing their sound away from the amiable emo-pop of MC towards something heavier, darker, and more musically complex. This Is A Stickup documents that evolution, while leaving ample room for the layered, sophisticated dynamics that the Milwaukees execute as well as, if not better than, any of their post-grunge contemporaries. Standouts include the powerful, textured "Angel With A Knife," the Permanent Waves-informed "A Harpoon," and album centerpiece "Berlin Wall," in which singer/lyricist Dylan Clark picks up where "When They Attack" and "Patriot Song" left off to depict revolution as poli-social metaphor, against the backdrop of the Big Rock Anthem that only a very few bands can convincingly pull off.
(Mike Doktorski, 5/03)

Miss Fortune
Miss Fortune
If you can get past one of the dumber band names out there (and an even dumber band photo), you will discover ten wonderfully written, professionally produced songs that could legitimately position this young Boston quartet for some bigger things. Guitarist-songwriter Jay Barclay's snappy melodies sound like they come quite natually, likely honed by endless hours in the angst-lite universe of GBV, Adam Duritz, Rob Thomas, Hootie, Toad The Wet Sprocket, and Vertical Horizen. Singer Ryan Link brings a pleasant, versatile tenor that convincingly gets the tunes across. Bottom line? Miss Fortune is not without its filler, but if Adult Top 40 is your thing, it doesn't get much better than the one-two punch of "Disappear" and "Peek."
(Mike Doktorski, 4/01)

Motel Creeps
Pleasantries In The Parlor
In case you were left wondering what the hell ever happened to the great New Brunswick band Bunt…look no further. Well okay, I guess you'd have to look further for all of them. While frontman Chris Martine pursues a doctorate at UConn and guitarist Mike Iurato runs mastering house Jigsaw Sound, we find bassman John Vitelli still in the game, now holding down the low end for moody NYC rockers Motel Creeps. With a knowing wink and a loving nod to the Smiths, Stone Roses, Psychedelic Furs, Blur, and other odds and sods of the halcyon era of British alternapop, Motel Creeps' four song debut EP Pleasantries In The Parlor recalls (not unpleasantly) the signature sound of those aforementioned legends of an Anglophalic yesteryear. The EP (recorded by ace producer Wayne Dorell at Hoboken's Pigeon Club) ably reconciles singer Greg Welch's cockneyed baritone with guitarist Eric Butler's echo-drenched atmospherics, while Vitelli and drummer Jim Connolly keep the rhythms chugging nicely along. I suppose the worst you could say here is that Motel Creeps' sound harkens a bit too closely to their influences, i.e. didn't Echo & The Bunnymen have a song called 'Ocean Storm'…or was it 'Ocean Rain'? It's been awhile. But on the other hand, if you (like me) miss Matt Pinfield spinning all da kool toonz Friday nites at the Melody Bar, then put on some Motel Creeps, light a candle, close your eyes, and breathe deep. (Mike Doktorski, 4/05)

The New Pornographers
Mass Romantic
A long-gestating side project of some of Vancouver, Canada's top indie musicians (including Dan Bejar of Destroyer, Carl Newman of Zumpano, and alt-country singer Neko Case), the New Pornographers offer up a brilliant pop-rock confection that threatens to eclipse any of the members' previous work. From the fuzzed-out, bouncy garage-rock of "The Body Says No" to the jaunty "Mary Martin Show" to the unbridled, power pop exuberance of "Letter From An Occupant," the band jumps deftly (and often mid-song) from cheesy 80s synth-rock to country twang, from barroom, piano-driven middle eights to sing-along, gang-vocal choruses. And that's just the tip of the iceberg…there's really no filler here. If you can get past the somewhat lo-fi production quality (the liner notes suggest a recording process of several years and several studios), you will discover what is arguably the first indie-pop masterpiece of the new millenium.
(Mike Doktorski, 3/01)

The Pennyroyals
The Pennyroyals (EP)
Sure, it's been said before. But the influence of the late, great Joey Ramone on America's suburban youth just cannot be overstated. 1-4-5's, 16th notes, fuzz boxes, and snarly vocals have echoed through our cultural landscape for nigh on a quarter century, long ago transcending their Bowery roots, from the hills of the Bosstones to the shores of Poison. On their debut EP, newcomers The Pennyroyals continue in that proud tradition, executing revved-up punk-pop (and one acoustic-y ballad) so well you'd think there'd be a number after their name. But accomplished musicianship, dead-on vocal harmonies, and singer Todd Anthony's excellent voice set these guys apart from their angrier (and less talented) peers, and hey, they're young. In a couple of years, lyrics like "The alarm sounds again/Gotta get up for class/But I can't move my ass" will sound dumb to them too.
(Mike Doktorski, 7/01)

Plug Spark Sanjay
Fuse Time For The Working Class
Plug Spark Sanjay may not yet have seen a million faces, but they sure as hell have rocked them all. With two self-booked, self-financed, and self-promoted national tours already under their belts, these guys are a veritable case study in indie rock elbow grease...and you get the sense they wouldn't have it any other way. Nowhere is this more apparent than on their sophomore effort Fuse Time For The Working Force, which finds the Hoboken-based quartet mining the unexplored reaches of punk, noise, math, jam, and ambient rock without so much a passing nod to current hit-making convention. Think Afghan Whigs meets Archers of Loaf meets Radiohead meets the Grateful Dead. Yet PSS pull it off as only musicians who have spent months together in a tiny van can. The intricate textures and nuanced arrangements of standouts "Neighbor" and "Station Identification" could leave you alternately confused, overwhelmed, elated...or just itching to be first in line to see this band live.
(Mike Doktorski, 10/01)

Chris Pierson
The White Demo
Clocking in at just over 13 minutes (average song length: 1:38(!)), ex-Velour 44/Angry Monsters frontman Chris Pierson's debut solo sampler cuts fast and hard between tales of yuppie angst set to acoustic power pop, leaving little time to ponder the fates of the myopic yet endearing characters that populate these tracks. While The White Demo doesn't necessarily benefit from the lo-fi recording, and the sparse instrumentation reveals the limitations of Pierson's quavering tenor (nothing some studio whirlygigs couldn't fix up!), you get the sense that he knows this as well as anyone. Suffice to say that The White Demo's wry observations on the love lives and nostalgic flashbacks of the young and upwardly mobile ("doesn't he remember / how they made out after science / like a bunson burner burning / now a total love defiance") ultimately leave you wanting more. (Mike Doktorski, 5/03)

Planet Janet
Nice Socks
Ah, that precipitous balance between imitation and innovation: strived for so often…and achieved so rarely. 21-year old Sarah Fire, the voice and primary creative force behind newbie shore quartet Planet Janet, is audibly torn between these two extremes on Nice Socks, her band's six-song debut. Don't get me wrong, there's some real promise in these songs of post-teen angst and coy desperation, but Fire's hiccup and yelp-ridden vocal affectations have been done to death…think Alanis-meets-Fiona by way of a punked-out Vanessa Carleton. (for somebody who hates the radio - ergo track 6 - Ms. Fire sure sounds a lot like the pouty chick singers who are all over it these days) Underneath the vocals, the music meanders between pop perfection (the central riff of "Hello" burrows into your brain and lodges there quivering) and minor key indie rock cool ("Heart") with varying results. But these kids are just getting started…it'll be interesting to see what comes next. (Mike Doktorski, 6/02)

Rt. 18 Sweatpant Hookers
Disaster Juice
What do you get when you cross a Sublime tribute band with…well, another Sublime tribute band? Such an experiment may or may not produce the Rt. 18 Sweatpant Hookers, but its a safe bet you'd get a reasonable fascimile thereof. Then again, these guys write their own songs, and upon repeated listenings, the tracks that populate this New Brunswick act's extremely DIY-flavored debut are delivered with tongue planted firmly in cheek, so maybe the joke's on us attempting to deconstruct tracks like the sooper-fun, ska-lite standouts "Somethin's Goin' Wrong" and "Slo' Burna." In true punk style, this disc skips quite a bit in my CD player (at least invest in better CD-Rs guys!) but what I heard made me want to hear more. Perhaps the Hookers sum it up best in their liner notes "it's all about beers, tits, and bonghits." Amen to that. (Mike Doktorski, 10/04)

Misfits & Dreamers: Songs for the Shrub Conscious
Somewhere between "You've got to be kidding" and "No fucking way" would've been my reaction if, back in '96, someone had told me that the Goshen NY-based Shrubs would be the sole New Brunswick Underground alumnus to survive, lineup intact, into the year 2002. But survive they have, in true indie style, to unleash upon an unsuspecting world their fourth full-length studio disc, Misfits & Dreamers. Truth be told, The Shrubs have always been something of a band out of time. Bassist Bob Torsello dominates the songwriting, and his tunes harken primarily to early sixties Brit-rock (opener "Gotta Go" is a dead ringer for "I Can't Explain" with Jerry Garcia on lead vox) and mid-tempo neo-hippie numbers. If the Shrubs do display a streak of brilliance, it's when they surrender to their own inherent goofiness, e.g. the demented, stream-of-consciousness ramblings of drummer Rob Takleszyn's "Roses From The Ash" -- whatever the hell it's about - could like, seriously blow your mind dude. "Shrubs in a Cavern" also falls into this novelty category, written by guitarist Jay LoRubbio in memoriam to a Shrubs' performance at Liverpool's legendary Cavern Club. Now I'll bet that's a good story. (Mike Doktorski, 6/02)

Erika Simonian
All the Plastic Animals
When most indie artists include a cover song on a record it usually is the highlight of the sequence. You know the song already, the band puts a new spin on it, it sounds cool, and it has a way of making the original material on the record seem blase. Not the case here. Erika's version of "Dancing in the Dark" is well done, but it pales in comparison to her own material (on a related note, I also think that her last effort, 29 1/2, was a superior post-9/11 record to The Boss' - whether it meant to be or not). I've been listening to Erika's stuff for a number of years and I honestly can't believe how her work just gets better and better with each new recording/song. The title track might just be the most beautiful song she's ever recorded... all at once I want to co-opt it as a lullaby for my own child AND have Erika come to my house and sing it to ME as I drift into the sweetest dreams. Thus, the short version of the review: Liz Phair meets your Mom. This is the beautiful complexity of Erika's songbook - songs like "Mr. Wrong" and "Here Comes Love Again" are erotic in the same muted-yet-brash, almost-tongue-in-cheek style that you loved on Exile in Guyville..... but then songs like the aformentioned "All the Plastic Animals" just make you wish she was your mother. Disturbing? On the contrary, it is strangely comforting. And maybe that's the best way to describe her dissonant, yet undeniably embraceable, brand of indie rock. You're going to feel conflicted. But you're going to like it. (Chris Martine, 11/04)

The Slow Wire
Quirky pop has a way of getting away from all but the most disciplined songsmiths, but makes a pretty good case that New Bruns scene vet Dave Urbano (Aviso' Hara, Bubblegum Thunder, Suran Song in Stag) knows what's what. Donning the hats of singer, songwriter, guitarist, bassist, and co-producer for this faux-solo outing, Urbano's holistic approach to underground rock leaves ample room for the careful sonic detailing that figures so heavily in the best Aviso tracks. By contrast, the Slow Wire defaults to fill those nooks and crannies with nuance, Moogs, and Urbano's wavering, slightly askew vocals. In the genre department, the album careens wildly (though not unpleasantly) from mid-tempo hookville ("Medicine") to Bionic Rhoda-esque dissonance ("Analog Living") to Brit-schmaltz ("Untitled Somehow"). If there's one surefire crowd pleaser here, it's got to be "Super Glue," a full-fledged, unapologetic indie pop masterpiece complete with nonsensical lyrics, an exquisitely rendered female harmony vocal (courtesy of Prosolar Mechanics' Amy Jacob), and a melody so insidiously fucking familiar that you'll want to hear it over and over (and over) again. (Mike Doktorski, 10/02)

[promo CD4]
North Jersey rock act Slushpuppy re-emerges with a 4-song "pre-release" EP apparently intended to test drive material the band has been recording with producer John Agnello (Jawbox, Dinosaur Jr.). To their credit, Slushpuppy has ditched entirely the Pat Benatar/Lita Ford babe-metal vibe that echoed throughout their first album, Unleashed (2000), and replaced it with an updated, No Doubt meets Catatonia sound that convincingly showcases the potential star power of lead singer Dawn Botti, who sounds alternately like she's going to fuck with you ("Everybody Knows"), fuck you up ("See More"), or just fuck you ("I Feel Fine"). (she also sounds eerily like Geddy Lee when she belts out those high notes…I'd love to hear these guys cover "Freewill") The boys in the band keep it interesting behind her, injecting the music with twists, turns, and accents in all the right places. Looking forward to the whole album!
(Mike Doktorski, 10/01)

Spaced Out Wastoids
Spaced Out Wastoids
Rule #1 to bands: never make it inordinately difficult for the reviewer to open your demo package. No shit, it took me like 10 minutes with a box cutter just to get this fucking thing opened. Then again, it does make you want to take a listen after all that. I wish I could tell you it was worth the trouble. On many of these nine songs, it really does seem as though the band is doing its damnest to live up to its moniker. A few bong hits might do wonders for the listening experience of "Barbecue Time At The Beef" or "Hell Gonna Gimme Yo Mamma" but sober, these tunes are at best exceedingly strange and at worst achingly painful. Now I don't mean to pull a Simon Cowell here, but while it's possible that the Dead-influenced "Johnny In Love" or "There She Goes" might leave you with a peaceful, easy feelin', when you take into account the lo-fi production (this honestly sounds like it was recorded on your grandmother's answering machine) and the excessive weirdness (eg the just plain spooky "Save Me"), most discriminating listeners may find the Spaced Out Wastoids to be one toke over the line. (Mike Doktorski, 11/03)

Johanna Stahley
After Ours
As lead singer of Spredhaus for most of the nineties, Johanna Stahley cultivated a reputation as a versatile vocalist and unflinchingly spunky performer whose consummate showmanship consistently added a much-needed dimension to her band's well-executed but kinda vanilla blend of funk and pop rock. On her solo debut, After Ours, Stahley and co-writer (and ex-Spredhaus guitarist) Joe Kacz craft a pleasing collection of mid-tempo, lite FM numbers that should play well to fans of their old band…though listening to this disc you can't help but wonder what a talent like Stahley might be doing if percolated in some new and heretofore unexplored directions. That said, check out "There Is Life (After Ours)," the best of the batch, which could be about the end of a band, the end of a relationship…or maybe the beginning of something all its own. (Mike Doktorski, 5/03)

Johanna Stahley
I'm Not Perfect
Maybe it's the view of youth receding in the rear view mirror, still close but tantalizingly out of reach, or maybe it's that first dawning sense of a mortality that was once purely theoretical, but any way you deconstruct it, turning thirty has a way of catalyzing reflection on the new lifephase. The lyrical gestalt of I'm Not Perfect pokes and prods at such thematic portent, even through a convincing sheen of percolating rhythms and sassy rock that decisively distance Johanna Stahley from her previous life fronting the New Brunswick indie band Spredhaus. Make no mistake, Ms. Stahley knows her comfort zone…and this ain't it. But she's excited at the novelty, intrigued by the possibilities, and inspired by the resulting tensions: the primordial soup of great albums, if you ask me (which I assume you are, if you're reading this). Musically, I'm Not Perfect really hits you with one potential hit single after another, as the Max Martin-esque dance-pop mixes (huge props to production team Yellow Pop..who also share writing cred on most of these songs) mesh perfectly with Stahley's considerable vocal prowess and rock n roll pedigree - think Kelly Clarkson meets Sheryl Crow meets Shirley Manson. In particular, the one-two punch of title track "I'm Not Perfect" and "Nothing I Would Change" is all you need to seriously getcher groove on, though the rousing "Bartender Song" will have you singing along by the second chorus (and may induce male listeners to seriously contemplate a career change). If there's one nit to be had here, it's the off-putting disclaimer of an album title…perfect or not, I'm Not Perfect is pretty damn close to it. (Mike Doktorski, 12/05)

The Stuntcocks
[ promo CD3]
With nary a hint of the everyman's slop-punk of their revered (well, revered in New Brunswick at least) back catalog, The Stuntcocks provide a preview of their forthcoming full-length with this three-song set. This time out, guitarists/vocalists (and founding 'Cocks) Johnny and Bobby are joined by a new rhythm section -- Ulf (bass) and Iggy (drums) -- to create what is arguably the band's most musically potent lineup to date. The schtick factor is gone, replaced by a leaner, cleaner vibe somewhere between Dinosaur Jr. and the Foo Fighters, as evidenced by the two originals and a great raved-up cover of The Cure's "In Between Days." Looking forward to the whole album, guys!
(Mike Doktorski, 7/01)

The Stuntcocks

The Stuntcocks
Together in various incarnations since the mid-nineties, New Brunswick's beloved punk rock institution The Stuntcocks have finally gotten around to releasing their very own CD…and fans (plus any self-respecting Hub City scenester) should find it well worth the wait. Fourteen tracks deep, the album showcases the songwriting of co-frontmen Johnny (aka ex-Urchins guitarist Albie Connelly) and Bobby (Rob Porter), whose complementary perspectives on the slacker lifestyle veer from old-school Cramps/Ramones ("Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder") to surf ("Getting Started") to mid-tempo indie ("Only Ana", "Low And Slow") to pseudo brit pop ("Decompose"…NBU's pick for a single) literally without missing a beat, courtesy of relative newcomer Iggy (aka ex-Boss Jim Gettys drummer Austin Faxon) who syncopated rhythms and virtuoso technique provide the 'Cocks '03 with the musical muscle needed to pull off some of this album's more ambitious left turns (e.g. the drumming on "Girl I Always Wanted to Be (With)"…kids, don't try this at home). (Mike Doktorski, 5/03)

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