Action Park may be a New York (Long Island, in particular) based band, but they’ve taken their name from the infamously dangerous waterpark in New Jersey, and it suits them well. I grew up going to amusement parks (Cedar Point baby!) and this record reminds me of fun, carefree late-teenage years, when we had the freedom of a car and the money from a summer job to take ourselves out to the roller coasters; yet still something bittersweet hung in the air, youth quickly slipping away with the season. In this way, the title of Action Park’s debut album You Must Be This Tall To Die is a fitting pun.
Billing themselves as “sad but rad,” Action Park are a four-piece consisting of Bobby DeQuillfeldt and Matt Riley on guitar and vocals, Vinny Carriero on bass and vocals, and Aaron Pagdon on drums. They declare their new album is “bound to be the soundtrack to your own personal comeback and then inevitable decline,” and You Must Be This Tall To Die is indeed filled with peppy, poppy hooks accompanied by sometimes less-than-peppy lyrics. Fans of NOFX and Lifetime will find a lot to love here.
Lead track “Wrong” kicks the record off in a catchy manner and that’s how the ride stays for the most part. The general vibe is that of 90’s skate punk with driving, constant guitars, melodic solos, and lively bass pinning things down, all behind shouty-singy vocals with plenty of ‘woah-oh-ohs.’ The fill-laden drums provided by Pagdon are a highlight, keeping the energy kinetic. Standout songs include “24 Months” (which is paired with “Wrong” as the first single) “Call Waiting” and “Breathless (Afrin and Sleeping Alone).”
The only misstep is in the last track, “Vacation Photos”, with an interlude of sampled dialog from Bojack Horseman that distracts from the music, but the intro/outro samples of vintage Action Park advertisements at the beginning and end of the record work perfectly to bookend what is overall an enjoyable romp.
It’s impossible to overstate the influence Pretty On The Inside had on me as a musician. Of course Live Through This is a masterpiece, with Courtney’s abrasiveness set against gorgeous melodies that break through the distortion, and mature songwriting skills from her and guitarist Eric Erlandson. But I already knew that melodic and loud was a possibility. From the start, I was drawn instead to the grittier side of Hole. Lucky for me, the very first time I heard them was on the “Violet” CD single, which in addition to the classic A-side contains a live rendition of “Whose Porno You Burn Black,” (a tweaked version of the end of “Burn Black,” a single track from 1991.) “It’s all whores, it’s all pain, it’s all disease man, it’s all the same!” Courtney screams, and I immediately knew I needed more of that raw version of Hole. Sure enough, there was more of that on POTI — within the first five seconds, in fact, as “When I was a teenage whore” comes grinding out of the speakers.
The rhythm on POTI is brutal, the guitars a slash of sonic meanness. Produced by Kim Gordon, (a piece of trivia I was proud to know and tell all my friends) and Don Fleming, it features a different lineup than what many people consider classic Hole, featuring Caroline Rue on drums and Jill Emery on bass — and with a different rhythm section, the vibe is very different, jumping along rather than gliding as on later Hole releases. The music can be derivative in places, but we forgive the blatant rip-off of Bauhaus’ “Dark Entries” in “Mrs. Jones,” because who doesn’t want to shred those four descending chords while growling “cry me a river baby, just take me home.”
“Mrs Jones” live in Paris 1991.
And it was vulgar. Holy shit was it vulgar. Abortions, jizz, blood, fucking, spread legs, dicks, no punches pulled, many punches thrown. There are other female fronted bands with obscene lyrics, but so often they are (very fun) taunting call out songs. That is here as well, but much of the vulgarity was internal. Courtney’s lyrics involve milk, disease, being gross, being in a weird body. I’ve heard people wonder (cruelly) what Kurt ever saw in Courtney. Have you looked at their lyrics against each other? These are two deeply weird people. Of course, when a man does it, it’s artistic and poetic. The collage-style artwork of the album and Hole flyers of the time also hammered home the ‘beautiful-turned-ugly’ aesthetic.
Sometimes people ask me how I can enjoy Courtney’s music, when she herself is such a messy person and has said some very strange and fucked up things in her time. “I’d love to have a drink with her, I’d never lend her my guitar” is what I like to answer. In the days before the internet was Everywhere, and we were trading bootlegs through the mail, I didn’t have every little thing she had ever said or done laid out in front of me. I had the music of a woman who had obviously Seen Some Shit and was absolutely not afraid to tell you about it, and she wasn’t going to get her point across in weeping acoustic confessionals.
Live footage (once only obtainable through aforementioned trading circles and eBay, now easily found on YouTube) reveals the rawness of these tracks even better. In particular I’d like to recommend this show from Boston in 1991 (watch out for the ‘artistic zooming in and out’), and this early 1990 version of their later-polished cover of “Gold Dust Woman.” Courtney is aggressive as she delivers these songs, a quality she never lost, even as Hole became a glossier sounding band. On stage is where all artifice falls away. (On stage and in cars – and good god does POTI absolutely RIP when coming out of a blown aftermarket sound system in a Buick Skylark; I was once mentioned in a local zine for doing just that in our high school parking lot.)
Hole- “Gold Dust Woman” 1990.
Which brings me to my bias: I like to think I have a special window into the feelings Hole songs, and especially the ones on POTI, evoke, because I have performed in a Hole cover band, Teenage Whores, for the past seven years. (Nothing is funnier than telling people you are a professional Courtney Love impersonator.) But I don’t have a monopoly on them. Watching over a hundred people scream “is she pretty on the inside, is she pretty FROM THE BACK?” thirty years later is a testament to the staying power of this album. The fact that it’s usually a majority non-cis male audience that comes to see us speaks volumes as well. The expectation to perform attractiveness in a society-approved fashion is something I think they all understand. Courtney didn’t perform it — she was vulgar, and strange, and exorcised her demons (or rallied them around her) in public for all to see. She was crucified for it.
In 1991, Pretty On The Inside was a revelation, and it remains so to this day.
The newest release from Brooklyn-based Atlas Engine,When the Compass Resets…Part 1, may be only six songs, but it feels like a much longer journey. (I also love that EPs seem to be popular right now, maybe that’s confirmation bias because I keep getting them sent to me? In any case, thumbs up.) Formerly a solo project of multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Nick LaFalce, Atlas Engine now includes Meredith Lampe (keys/vocals), Jeff Fettig (guitar/keys), Patrick Cochrane (bass/vocals), and Brendan McGuckin (drums). Fans of Mercury Rev and Transatlanticism-era Death Cab For Cutie will find a lot to love in this album, with the sprawling yet intimate sound and strong-yet-vulnerable quality of singer Nick LaFalce’s voice.
The album begins with the languid, “As You Are,” rhythms pulsing with little vagaries of timing that almost sound like a skip. It’s calm but not calming, easing the listener in without being sleepy. The pace picks up on the second track, “Modern Mind,” with a motorik-style beat and guitars both ethereal and insistent twining around each other; the bass is really the standout here. A brief, almost ambient instrumental follows, which if you aren’t watching the tracklist feels like a natural, extended outro.
Keyboardist Meredith Lampe features on “All I Want is Everything // Alternate State” and the addition of her vocals brings the track from soaring up to epic. The song, a musing on relationships and always wanting more (“I’m a captain treading water / on a wreckage of my own design… “when even love is still not enough”) is a perfect midpoint.
Shimmering guitars and a marching beat on “Not Enough” underpin the heavy themes, and LaFalce sings “How can it be we lose count of tragedies?” as he addresses something we are all familiar with, the seemingly endless stream of mass shootings and violence in the news every day. The final track, the aptly named “(Thoughts and Prayers)” serves as another instrumental outro.
According to LaFalce, When the Compass Resets…Part 1 deals with “wheels of repetition,” and touches on topics both personal and external, including technology and gun control. Overall, the album and its cyclical nature was inspired by LaFalce’s experience with chronic Lyme disease, of which he says “even when you’re feeling better, you know it’s only temporary. So you just wait for the moment where you have to start all over again.” Perhaps fittingly, LaFalce will be continuing the EP releases with a second part soon.
When the Compass Resets…Part 1 is stunningly produced, by LaFalce himself. The vocal mixes here are particularly impressive, going from solos to an almost choral effect with ease. Part 2 will be out in November, and I am eager to return to this sonic world LaFalce has built. I’d also love to see both sides released as one vinyl LP; the tracks all fade into one another, which must be a lovely effect without the break Spotify inserts.
Atlas Engine are, as many bands right now, unsure of their touring plans, but they do plan on a release show for Part 2 at Baby’s All Right sometime in November. In the meantime, they will be playing at Our Wicked Lady Rooftop with Smock, Groupie, and Safer on 9/29. I’m hoping to catch that show, because I really want to know LaFalce’s pedal set-up.
Wow, that’s a lot of names (and a lot of hyperlinks for my editor, I’m sure) and not even every single group all the members were in. But enough of past credits, let’s get to the music on this new EP. Which, coming from a group with those credentials, you know is going to be rock solid.
Fake Names (the EP is self-titled, like their debut album from last year) is a tight, 3 song affair that clocks in at about 9 minutes. It kicks off with the anthemic “It Will Take A Lifetime,” which sets the stage for what to expect: melodic bass, crisp drums and interlocking guitar work that incorporates rhythm chords and rollicking leads. There’s nary a pause, and by the time the EP ends with “Cuts You Down,” it’s time to hit repeat and pay attention to the vocals this time again, which are definitely more of the ‘singing’ than ‘screaming’ style of punk. I have a personal theory that supergroups tend to be a bit poppier than where their individual members came from, and it holds here – which is not a bad thing. Fake Names have hit a solid mark with catchy, pleasing punk rock- sometimes more punk, sometimes more rock, and well-produced without being overly slick.
Guitarist/vocalist Baker explained the band’s choice of releasing an EP by noting “So many of my favourite bands growing up (Damned, Clash, Black Flag to name a few) issued EPs between albums, and they were always special to me… they were records that made me feel closer to the bands, giving me a window into what was coming next or what they did when no one was looking. The ‘Fake Names EP’ was recorded in this spirit.” An EP also gives a band the chance to cut out filler, and that is exactly what Fake Names has done here.
“Voices Carry” by ‘Til Tuesday is one of my absolute favorite 80’s songs, hands down. I have it on vinyl and my roommates despair when I break it out, ready to practice for karaoke. It’s simple yet catchy, heartfelt and soaring. Released in 1985, it was the biggest hit for the Aimee Mann fronted band.
Injecting new life into the already great song, Desert Sharks are releasing their cover version of it on Substitute Scene Records this week. The Brooklyn-based band recorded this as a trio (though are currently looking for a rhythm guitarist) and picked up where they left off after 2019’s Baby’s Gold Death Stadium. This year they plan for a highly anticipated followup EP, a tour, and new singles- of which “Voices Carry” is one.
Gone is the synth of the original; guitars take over completely. The bass and drums provide a throbbing, driving beat throughout, with drums pushed quite forward in the mix. It’s grungy without being too sludgy, punk without being too messy, a clear tribute to the original with a very fresh update. Desert Sharks self-describe as gloom punk, but this one definitely has some fist-pumping pep to it.
In contrast to the fuzzy rock treatment the music gets, the track is pretty faithful vocally. The ending is extended a bit and vocalist/bassist Stephanie Gunther gets to really show off her chops; it also brings the track up to about the same runtime as the original, even though the BPMs have increased, so the length doesn’t shortchange anyone. The build toward the “He said! Shut up!” part is especially perfect and Gunther nails it (better than I ever will, which didn’t stop me trying; sorry roommates.)
Now all we need is an accompanying video, done in the same style as the original, which climaxes at Carnegie Hall. Maybe the Brooklyn version of that would be Nighthawk? Desert Sharks, call me if you need any extras. I’ll be sure to keep the singing down.