GIVE IT A NAME - Million Dollar Marxists (Gearhead)
WOW! WHAT! WHAT!? - The Sperms (Nicotine)

Call me a "curmudgeon," but I've always felt that once rock and roll became safe - long about the time MTV's signal went up - it was all over. And that goes double for punk. There quickly came a point when people stopped slowing down and staring at it, no longer aghast at the ugly pimple on the arse of popular music. Swearing, spitting, and bashing out loud, fast,
pseudo-nefarious, blink-and-you'll-miss-it salvos of lowbrow rebellion quickly - almost overnight - became rote, tired, and, worst of all, predictable.

But in a world in which iPods have compressed punk to ones and zeros, there are those who feel that as long as there are fourteen-year-old boys, rock and roll will never die. Please mark the following three albums Defendants' Exhibits A, B, and C.

Million Dollar Marxists are five guys from Ottawa who, judging from their photos in the booklet which accompanies "Give It A Name," are apparently too young to know any better, rocking frantically and dragging their skinned knuckles through Sunday matinee shows all the way from Medicine Hat to Moncton as if the Devil Dogs and New Bomb Turks never existed. Full marks all around for cozying up to those two reference points.

"Do The Emotion" kicks things off in fine fashion, a four-alarm fire of guitar savagery and garagey looseness which touches the hem of punk history and goes away happy. The guitars of Steve and Lee (no last names - just Steve and Lee) blaze a path that is both pleasing and punishing, torn and frayed, while singer Luke recalls a much younger and less sleep-challenged Iggy, neck veins bulging and tendons snapping.

But Million Dollar Marxists run out of ideas quickly. Although the entire album is chock full o' drum rolls, tightly-packed metal shop guitar, buzzing layers of electricity, and call-and-response vocals, the tempos rarely vary and the band seem destined to spin their wheels in a quagmire of stale and endlessly recycled words and music.

Plain talk: there's simply not that much here to do cartwheels over.

As someone who can barely speak English some mornings, I'm the last person who should be making fun of the ill-fitting phrasing on Italy's Sperms' web page, but how can you not embrace three guys who describe their early gigs as"fast and furious like the tongue of a leprous on the tit of a virgin, reflected their anger, desire and power, but still the sound was too immature and too contaminated by too many 'sonic youth' reminiscences"?

Leprosy may be a misdiagnosis, but "Wow! What? What!?" is unshowered, grimy, and diseased three-chord punk, gnawing at its own extremities but briskly played, a fairly unmuddled glimpse through the storm the Sex Pistols, Damned, the Heartbreakers, and countless others before them braved but with a twist. Their singer Troise (once again, no last name!) is also their drummer, a concept I've never quite warmed up to.

"Last Song" tries, with decidedly mixed results, to blend vaguely Thunderesque guitar sequence/solo with handclaps. Guitarist Licastro combines the best and worst of Mr. Genzale and Walter Lure, alternating between raunchy, sloppy, and lazy, the entire band stumbling along like a fluid-clogged Ramones. "Pretty Sweet" is actually just that, with a backwashed hook and cheerfully loopy, throbbing, and pulsating fretboard shenanigans courtesy of Licastro.

It's when The Sperms embrace the concept of mutant bubblegum, though, such as that in album closer "Drama!", that they really shine. A near perfect amalgamation of clever and charming melody, sizzling guitar wrapped in candy floss, and an ingratiating chorus, the song comes together in true ragged-but-right fashion. Maybe these guys aren't as L7 as they seem.

The Stilettos utilize a more bare-knuckled approach toward their craft than Stardumb stablemates like The Apers, Backwood Creatures, and The Groovie Ghoulies, falling squarely on the punk side of the pop/punk fence. Like pirahnas in a feeding frenzy, razor sharp and hopefully glory bound, they chew up the scenery from one end of "Making History By Repeating It" to the other.

Unfortunately (and I never thought I'd ever say this), louder and faster doesn't always mean better. These guys have so thoroughly stripped away all of the pleasantries which make for good punk, things like momentum and melody, that it often veers dangerously close to the loudest post-MRI headache on God's green earth.

Granted I'm a good 25 years past The Stilettos' intended target market, but this is all so - I don't know - uniformly dreary and one dimensional (yet competently played - seems like a contradiction, doesn't it?). "I Want You" is basically the chorus of Peter Frampton's "Show Me The Way" relentlessly bludgeoned into submission with nary a sniff of irony. In "What To Do With My Time," front man Ned Harris actually monotones "I wanna rock, I wanna roll/I need a woman to satisfy my soul." Ouch!

Most of the songs here are built around overtrampled, meat-and-potatoes riffs straight out of the Punk Rock 101 songbook which careen haphazardly around the room looking for a hard edge to bounce off of or a corner to back you into, haranguing you into a screaming fit. In other words, you've heard this entire album a million times before - braying, harsh poverty punk which lacks mobility, unlikely to advance and get a job. I thought Stardumb knew better...

You've been warned. - Clark Paull

Million Dollar Marxists


The Sperms

The Stilettos