2002 – Nerf Herder – American Cheese

I recently mentioned the band Nerf Herder when talking about the band’s front man Parry Gripp and how he releases a song a week then turns some of those songs in to crazy music videos. But this throw back punk rocker has had a fun-loving career lasting over a decade at this point. In the album American Cheese, the band Nerf Herder gets absolutely rediculous, it’s easy to see how this guy knows how to play to a YouTube audience and release songs directly to the internet: he’s a geek at heart. This should have been painfully obvious in that the name of the band is an overt Star Wars reference (who’s scruffy lookin’?).

No you needn’t / shed a tear / ’cause I’ve got waffles / and I’ve got beer / and I’ve got Mr. Belvedere / Welcome to my world.” References to Mr. Belvedere and Cheers pop up in the first track of the album (you know you’re a child of the 1980’s if…). Welcome to my World is the ultimate breakup song for “dudes.” Although the lyrics concede that, in his bachelor pad, it’s “non-stop no-girl action / without you” it is also a powerful mantra to staying positive and enjoying what a co-worker of mine once described as “beer in the fridge, underpants on the floor” single-living.

Other songs that draw out Parry and the rest of the band’s inner-geek include Mr. Spock, wherein the girl he is trying to impress clearly wants “something more than human / someone with blood that’s gold and green / you want someone better / than me.” Other songs deal with being the one picked last for a team, inspiring anyone out there who is willing to listen to put in the time and start their own band, and more relationship songs – all of which have absurd twists and laugh-out-loud lyrics.

Some of my favorite tracks, mostly for the rediculousness factor, are New Jersey Girl, Cashmere, and High Five Anxiety. So go on and give American Cheese a listen.

2008 – Lucas Johnson – Love

Update 2018: the Amazon links in this article are no longer valid, but Luke still maintains his page at http://www.reverbnation.com/lucasjohnson.

It’s not every day you have the opportunity to listen to 11 original songs from from a musician in a small town in Pennsylvania. That small town is Corry, PA, and it’s my home town. The musician? Lucas Johnson. The album? “Love.”

Lucas Johnson plays acoustic guitar and sings on the album, with a few tracks highlighting other talents. It has a morose, blues sound to it, with the edge of someone who grew up falling asleep to grunge rock. Some people may not like the effects on the voice, and some of the compression of a low-budget produced album comes through on the cymbals of the first track, but for an album made with a few friends, the guitar playing and lyrics stand out enough to keep you driving onward to each next track. Alongside creative lyrical witticisms like “the only soul you bear / is through the hole in your socks,” the album pushes and pulls the listener in several directions, all of which contribute to that all mixed up inside feeling that you feel Lucas had to be going for.

Love” is an album written by a United States Army veteran, who is now back home raising a family – and the album doesn’t shy away from that. Hey Mother is one of my most favorite tracks on the album, because it absolutely reflects the attitude I’ve heard from dozens of veterans: I appreciate your concern, but I want you to trust me: I’m going to get through this. “This,” in this case, is the one noun that changes depending on the person, but a lot of times it may have to do with their reintroduction to “normal life” – life outside of a warzone. It may have to do with a traditional young man pushing back, ever so slightly, on their parents who might be concerned that they’re getting married too soon. It might have to do with a person dealing with a break up or another mess in their personal life – but he has confidence that things will come out all right.

A local favorite, when Lucas is seen in a pub playing with a band, is often White Trash as Ever. Although he plays it with a bit of reluctance, there is no denying the guitar comes alive in this deeply personal song. “Post traumatic slash bi-polar / is most of what I am / everything I’ve built up / just like castles in the sand.” Christian overtones come through on the album, but they’re still the feelings of a lost man. Confused, wondering where he stands between agnostic and angry, but finding comfort in his religion at times when almost nothing else will soothe his soul. The catchy strumming makes you want to listen to the album over and over, and the way Lucas lays it all out on the table makes this one of the most raw albums I’ve ever heard.

The album was once handed to me in the form of a CD by Luke himself, and I’ve very recently re-purchased it on Amazon. I encourage you to do the same. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear what someone is genuinely thinking, not what their producer wants them to think, not what their friends want them to say, but what is really running through the mind of one man, who doesn’t want to cut you to the core, but doesn’t have much control over that once you listen to the album. You can download more free tracks and get more information on ReverbNation.com/LucasJohnson.

2002 – Midget Fan Club – A Total Nightmare

“Hi there, Midget Fan Club. I’m Garrett. Long time listener, first time realizer.” I’ve had a song stuck in my head, lately. Starting Over, and at the end of the song the lyrics mostly repeat: “Starting over, gonna do it right this time…” It was a song I don’t recall the origins of – I don’t know how I found it, where I first heard it, or if someone introduced me to the song. It is entirely possible it was on the original MP3.com website as a free download, but I do remember burning it on to a CD, and even putting it on my Rio MP3 player. I haven’t heard it in years, but the lyrics have been repeating in my head for several weeks – I had to hear this song, by this unknown band, once again.

Well, this week I started searching the lyrics, and I was brought directly to the website of a band called Midget Fan Club. The downside? The website looks like it’s been abandoned for about 5 years, and was never much in the first place. But, I’ve been able to navigate it some, and found out that the track I loved was indeed called Starting Over and was on an album called A Total Nightmare. The better news? The album is free to download on their website (but, wait, it gets better…). I’ll get you the download links in just a minute, first, let’s talk about the band and the album itself.

The lead singer of Midget Fan Club is a dude named Guy Smiley. His voice was given to him as a gift of the punk-rock gods, and would be suited for nothing else… wait until you hear him. Imagine that raspy growl asking if you’d like fries with that, or congratulating you on the approval of your new home loan. He was destined to be a punk rocker. He’s made a living off of it, and (even though it’s hard to tell from the album), Midget Fan Club has released several albums and EPs, and has even been a part of the Vans Warped Tour.

A Total Nightmare is an punk rock album through and through. Driving drums that make my arms hurt just listening, guitar solos that sound inspired by metal bands but are so gritty they have to be punk rock, and only 3 songs over 3 minutes long. One obligatory accoustic track is also included on A Total Nightmare. But it is tracks like Weekend Song part II that take me back to high school nights spent with friends, listening to our favorite songs and singing along with the tracks at the tops of our lungs. The track Crucified has the angsty lyrics you don’t always expect from a punk band, but Guy’s voice somehow makes it okay. What is Mine is a breakup song, but in that backwards sense of being left after knowing someone cheated, and still feeling the hurt, wondering how to pick up and move on. “And I’m trying to make up / For my mistakes/ And I’m trying to wake up / But I dont have what it takes,” Guy sings.

The album ends on “Starting Over” – which I faintly recall reading the history of the song, years ago, and it was about finding the right people to fit in to the band, and starting the band all over again with the right musicians. I also could’ve made the entire back story up, I completely forgot the name of the band for the last decade. The song is just one verse, then the two line chorus repeats for another 45 seconds or so. “Challenge lies ahead / It’ll take every thread / Of fiber in my being / But I’ve made up my mind…” What it builds to this mantra of getting it right, no matter the cost – which repeats in a way that really screams determination.

Okay, so the album isn’t the best I’ve ever heard… but hearing that last song again made it all worth it, and maybe you might like something on one of their other albums… but good luck getting them. I lucked out because A Total Nightmare is available as one of the few free downloads on the website. That’s the original 2002 version. Ready for more good news? A remastered, 2008 version of the album is ALSO available for free on their webite. So go download Midget Fan Club’s “A Total Nightmare” remaster right now. You can’t argue with free.

2011 – Shael Riley & The Double Ice Backfire – Ultimate Songs from the Pit

Shael Riley and The Double Ice Backfire did a Kickstarter fundraiser in late 2010… and even though my discs may have gotten lost in the mail somewhere along the line, Shael Riley does right by his fans and he was kind enough to toss me a download code to get the album from Bandcamp. And am I ever glad he did.

You may remember Shael Riley from the chiptune band The Grammar Club. One of Shael’s other projects has been the Double Ice Backfire, which is clearly an homage to all things Mortal Kombat, even musically. The band performed a cover of the song Sub-Zero (Chinese Ninja Warrior) (which was from an old album released when the very first Mortal Kombat game was released). The album title references The Pit (a famous level in the Mortal Kombat series) and there is even a song en titled “tip eht fo mottob” – which is a clever reference to a screen in the original arcade version of Mortal Kombat which the hint “tip eht fo mottob” – a clue to a way that you can fight the hidden character, Reptile. The song is a fun trip through the Mortal Kombat universe from Reptile’s perspective.

Not every song was equally geeky. Album opener, How to Fire a Gun is quite sincere and contains much more thought provoking lyrics: “do you believe she’ll never leave you, do you have someone to read to, do you hope you’ll never need to fire a gun?” But don’t worry, if that’s not your scene, then you can rely on songs like Hipster Hoax to bring you back to the world you’re familiar with, of pirates, ninjas, and cats.

While people waited for the album to finish, the band released several covers (many of which were commissioned by Kickstarter contributors), including Here Comes the Hot Stepper (you’d remember Ini Kamoze if your heard it!), Creep from Radio Head, Cake’s The Distance, and even Melanie by “Weird Al” Yankovic.

Head to ShaelRiley.com to listen to the covers for free, and you can head to Bandcampto buy the album for $10.