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Record Reviews with Pen!

The Darkness – Motorheart, or: Late in the game goodness

Relegated by the greater public to One Hit Wonder status, The Darkness have been steadily releasing albums almost all of which outdo their initial blow-up, Permission to Land, itself a very strong record, for almost twenty Rock ‘n’ Roll years, the latest being 2021’s Motorheart, arguably their silliest and most diverse record to date.

“After having had a year and a half of torment and uncertainty and suffering [with the COVID-19 pandemic], I thought our fans deserved to hear us having a good time again, like we did on our first record.” – Justin Hawkins,

All the reviews mention the line in Welcome to Glasgae in which Justin Hawkins notes the ‘women are the gorgeous/the food is OK’, and that’s a good line. The song itself is, speaking of lines, in line with something like Barbarian or Black Shuck, high-energy kick-offs with something of a story to tell; it goes a little too hard on the goofy, or a kind of goofy, for me, but I can’t hate it.

It’s Love, Jim and Motorheart keep us going pace-wise, the former being one of Pen!’s personal favourite tracks on the record, a driving, heavy riff-rock blade of a song regarding nothing less than alien seduction, the latter nearly, in its proclivities, metal, ripping guitar licks, operatic vocals concerning literal love machines, and chugging riffs. These two songs are great encapsulations of what make The Darkness so fun: doing rock right, and not without a sense of humour.

“For me, the ’80s is a great decade if you’re looking at fun in rock. I don’t think we ever fully see ourselves as a glam band, but there’s a certain attitude in the way some of it’s played. The production hasn’t perhaps aged very well, but there is an attitude in that kind of music that’s really exciting to tap into. We see it more as the song becomes the embodiment of that attitude. We imagine that the song’s strutting down the road with a pair of cheap sunglasses and a pair of 501s and doesn’t give a fuck. You know, just a T-shirt with a beer advertisement. We try and give the songs character, really.” – Justin Hawkins,

The Power and the Glory of Love’s hook is based exclusively around how Justin Hawkins, who has maintained his impressive range throughout his career, chooses to pronounce ‘power’ as ‘pawa’. This is by no means a bad song, and I never quite skip it, but it’s not something I yearn to hear. As usual, the production is impeccable.

Jussy’s Girl is a huge step up, and arguably my favourite of the record’s tracks. It struts, it croons, it emotes, and it’s funny, and it’s something The Darkness have never done before, although listening to it, it seems only natural they should’ve. One of the things the band never gets credit for it expanding their sound while working within the appropriate eras of rock, which is later demonstrated on the equally stellar Speed of the Nite Time, a cool, cutting New Wave track evoking nothing less than, yes, riding at the speed of the nite (this is rock, where ‘night’ is spelled ‘nite’) time, reminding Pen! of nothing less than the night he stayed up until 1am after working until 11pm in order to cycle across town to see his at the time girlfriend after she’d come home from a night out dancing, those quiet nights on sprawling Spanish highways lit by lights strange and just-green, pregnant with loss and portent, nights like these, of aching love, beating hearts, and our all too stark consciousness of time’s quick passage, a sound the band has never yet dug into, and they crush it.

I would wait on you hand and foot; you’re makin’ me feeeeeel… sew gewd – Justin Hawkins

Other highlights include breezy Eastbound, and strutting You Don’t Have to Be Crazy About Me (But It Helps). I can’t really speak ill of any part of the record; some songs just don’t quite speak to me the way others do. Maybe you’ll love Sticky Situations. Regardless, Motorheart is undeniably a top-notch record late in the game, The Darkness producing a stronger record than they have in several years and embracing fun more fully than they ever perhaps ever have, which is likely the reason the record is so great; it’s just fun. It’s a fun listen, the band is having fun, they have nothing to prove, and they sound great. Again, big props to Dan Hawkins on production duties. Sounds ace.

Lit – Tastes like Gold: A review?

I’m by no means a Lit superfan. I’m not sure I’d call myself even a fan. But I’ve listened to Lit beyond the singles. I know they more than justify their existence as a band, that there’re many, many catchy deepcuts gone overlooked, and that the band has never, ever possessed a shred of pretense; they’re just a group of dudes trying to have a good time.

I’m not a superfan, so I’ve not kept up with Lit beyond their album Atomic – I’ve dipped, through Spotify, into their later work, but not exhaustively, so call me familiar chiefly with ‘classic Lit’ (no relation to Classical Literature). Tastes Like Gold, released a month ago, is Lit very knowingly returning to a vein the likes of which had, evidently, a lot of prime material yet to be mined from it. Apparently the Popoff brothers have recently dipped their bleach-blonde-dyed heads into country – nowhere is this evident on their latest release, being chiefly pop-rock/punk. Restated: feels like 1999 all over again, but slathered in 2022, which is, interviews perused, exactly what the band was aiming for.

Well, maybe not necessarily trying to capture the “spark” of that (A Place in the Sun) record — you can’t chase after or recreate, you know, the phenomenon that is “My Own Worst Enemy,” but at the same time, what we definitely did intentionally was really try and put our heads back to how we felt and how we approached songs back then. As songwriters, we talked to other songwriter friends, everyone’s always trying to collaborate with other writers, always trying to grow and get better and better at the craft of writing. The more we started talking about it, we’re like, “It’s great to evolve and change, but at the same time, we were like, “maybe sometimes we overthink it and try to one-up ourselves. Why don’t we just get back to that natural feeling of, ‘hey, let’s capture this … it’s more like an energy.’ Let the words kind of come out as they come out and not overthink it and try and outsmart ourselves.

The approach going into this record was very much like, “let’s just make a great like summer anthem, classic Lit-sounding record, but without feeling redundant or dated. – A.J. Popoff,

“Yeah Yeah Yeah.” – A.J. Popoff

It’s hard not to love feel good get-this-shit-started anthems like Yeah Yeah Yeah, dumb as it is. That’s the whole point of the song. It’s about being in the moment, being silly, having a good time. Lit want you to have a good time. They also want you to know they still get into trouble – see: Kicked off The Plane. The record is full of A.J. Popoff’s considerations that he’s past his prime, that he’s seen better days, he’s still humiliating himself, but he’s not going to change. He’s self-aware, but he doesn’t want to live any other way. The man is who he is. What’s one more walk of shame? The man seems happy merely to be there, to be alive, cracking a brew, and knowingly pointlessly feuding with his girlfriend.

The song tying the whole record together is The Life that I Got, an ode to not having enough money, not having fancy shit, scraping by, but enjoying, despite that, the life you’ve got, good friends, weekends, warehouse parties which never end. A.J. stresses he doesn’t need Gucci, that he has never ‘balled in a mansion or a yacht’, but he is indeed ‘in love with the motherfucking life that I got’. How true all this is is up for debate; Lit were, for a time, a not insignificant band, but the sentiment is appreciated, the message is good and in line with what Lit is all about: having a good time, taking stock of what’s around you, the good things in your life, and appreciating those things, the little things, fucking up, moving on, enjoying the ride. This is the kind of tune which makes you, listener, feel OK with your lot in life. Life isn’t grandiose, or, for Lit it isn’t; it’s a trailer park party set to distorted powerchords.

“There are definitely your quintessential Lit party anthems on there. I think one, in particular, that we did with the American Authors guys, Jeremy and I wrote with them and they have a song called “Life That I Got,” and that sounds like to me something you haven’t heard on any Lit record, but when you hear it, you’re like, “Okay, that’s a Lit song for sure, but they haven’t gone there yet.” I think that has the potential to be a summer party anthem,” – A.J. Popoff,

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Anyone who has listened to Lit to any degree more than passing knows the band has a melancholy and sentimental side somewhat at odds with how they’re popularly perceived – descending-melody-Miserable, one of the band’s best songs and first singles, indicated this, and this as often as not minor tendency in the band’s work, clearly, but that song didn’t quite take off like My Own Worst Enemy Did, Lit’s signature song and what they’ll forever be associated with, did. Cheesy, yes, but songs like I’m Okay With That, a plaintive, building ode to a partner are, if you’re in the mood, pretty spot on, housing emotion in earnest and melodies which a listener can’t help but enjoy – a listener just can’t! – and Pen! is a huge sucker for the dysfunctional relationship slowjam, Do It Again, the loping melodies of which, again, yank even the most jaded along. The production work throughout the record is solid; the record sounds full, the tones various. Songs and melodies build and develop reflecting mature songwriters. Lit were always better at what they did than people wanted to admit.

Other notables include the miscommunication rocker, Mouth Shut, in which A.J. Popoff laments his inability to speak his mind without offending someone – this certainly, it should be noted, isn’t a political song; rather one likely reflecting on the perils of modern online communication – the minor key, driving Out of It, and the The Cars cover Let’s Go, in which A.J. delivers his best vocal performance on record.

I know what you’re thinking – Lit? Really? – but, man, give this one a chance. Give a Popoff a chance.

Stabbing Westward’s ‘Chasing Ghosts’, or: How I learned to angst again

I’m a big fan of b-bands, bands like Stabbing Westward; the guys who tasted semi-big-fame and now ride a dedicated, personal fanbase, playing smaller shows and still killing it. After their dissolution following 2001’s self-titled and far more mainstream-sounding self-titled record, Christopher Hall, Stabbing Westward’s co-songwriter and lead vocalist, formed The Dreaming, releasing several records, among them 2015’s very solid Rise Again, the co-writing of which was committed with his Stabbing Westward co-songwriter (there were two others, chiefly, but Flakus is he who is back in the fold) and keyboardist, Walter Flakus, who in the same year joined the band, which shortly shifted back into Stabbing Westward, resulting, at last, in 2022’s Chasing Ghosts, the band’s first record in over twenty years.

“… we set these weird little goals for ourselves. I think if I get that promotion or if I just get that car. We set these weird, random goals for ourselves, and when I’ve achieved that, I’m gonna be someone else. I’m gonna be better than I am now. If that’s your mindset, then you’re going to be constantly disappointed because unless you’re actually doing the hard work to change yourself, you’re not ever going to be anyone but who you are. And at the same time, why be like everyone else. I actually liked who I was in a weird sort of way? Yeah. Which is what I thought, that when I get that gold record and I’m a rock star, blah blah blah, then I’ll show all those kids from high school what I’ve done. They don’t even give a shit.” – Christopher Hall,

Stabbing Westward’s stock and trade is angst, longing, and regret smeared over distorted guitars and synthesizers, elements the likes of which are all in place here. They’re a legacy band, now; they know what their fans want, what they are as a band, and they deliver consistently. Advent tune I Am Nothing is a chunky, slamming wedge of dark alternative rock trading lyrically in rejection and existential annihilation, and Hall – who has, as noted in a recent interview, taken to writing in his vocal sweet spot and becoming more comfortable during his time with The Dreaming singing the way he likes to sing, and therefore sounds great throughout the record – takes it up a huge notch when the fully-realized chorus kicks in when we’re hit with the chorus for the second (and third time), hitting those classic lancing, shouted Hall high notes you, you, and you all crave more than anything, and how darkly gratifying is it when he shifts from questioning if he is, indeed, nothing, to demanding whom he is singing to admit it? That’s what we all, in failing relationships, feel, and, like Christopher Hall, we eventually hit existential rock-bottom, predicated as we are on our beloved, and admit we’re utterly nothing, and what sweet, bitter gratification that is. That annihilation is almost welcome. Almost. Follow-up Damaged Goods is solid, but doesn’t quite do the trick; thankfully, we’re brought back up by Cold’s steady throb and catchy, if safe, chorus, and treated afterward to Push (which is about Pushing, get it? someone away) what sounds like a 2022 rewrite of What Do I Have to Do?

“A lot of the music written in the 90s by the band wasn’t written for my voice. Walter [Flakus] and Andy [Kubiszewski] would just write music, and then I would have to sing on it. A lot of times, Andy wrote things too low, so I didn’t have as much power. Walter would have random keys like F sharp, like on “Save Yourself,” so I’m up in the stratosphere trying to hit these crazy notes. Now, I have taken a little more control. It’s like, “This is the zone for my voice. This is the sweet spot. Let’s try to write within my sweet spot.” The whole time after Stabbing Westward with The Dreaming, I wrote in my sweet spot, so I was able to work on my voice and make it stronger and whatnot. I also think that we didn’t know who we were in the band’s early days. We were trying hard to fit in with a genre that we weren’t. We were not industrial. We liked industrial and wanted to be a part of that scene, but we weren’t.” – Christopher Hall,

Echoes of past works (perhaps indicated by the album’s title) continue in the subsequent track, Wasteland, the verse melody of which is remarkably similar to that of 1998’s You Complete Me, one of my personal SW favourites. This isn’t a bad track, but it suffers from verseitis, a sickness of which many songs suffer: excellent verse, chorus which can’t quite get to where it needs to be. A lotta promise, delivery compromised. We want a big load on completion. Sometimes Stabbing Westward gets us there, sometimes they don’t.

The track pinning the record down is the penultimate Ghost, a long, plunging, distorted ode to a failed relationship. I’m just a ghost, Hall reflects, trapped in these memories; I’m just a ghost who holds the life you’ve left behind. If this record and this song in particular had been in my hands in 2019 and 2020’s agonizing, lovelorn years, Pen! would had it on hard repeat. Yet again tapping into the maddening situation in which love – the most important thing in the world, I say half in irony – falls apart before us, slips through our hands, trying to understand why, what happened, spiraling through endless memories, pitching through that truly blue, oceanic, thooming sadness, The Blues, so to speak, which accompanies true heartbreak, trying to understand, failing, embarrassing ourselves trying to get it back, scratching, clawing, groveling wretches become we – I’m not saying this Stabbing Westward song does all that, but it’s a welcome vessel for our respective expressions of angst. That’s the power of song and art: not necessarily to represent ourselves, our personal struggles, but to act as vessels, conduits for our personal emotions, our respective angsts.

Welcome comeback? Welcome, surely, and it’s good to see the band still has juice in the tank. This might’ve been better as a long EP rather than an LP, but it’s good enough, it justifies itself. Christopher Hall sounds great, the production is stellar, the songwriting is solid, sometimes more than solid – a lot of it sounds like The Dreaming, and there is a difference between how the two bands sound, but it’s Hall all the way down, so dig it – and the cover art is cool. If you liked Stabbing Westward in 1998 or The Dreaming in 2015, or fantasized about them having a rockin’ baby together, you’ll probably like this. My Pen! out!