There's not really a whole lot left to say about punk music. It's a genre that's been played out to its limited extremes. It's been pulled like taffy until it becomes pop, or indie rock, or hardcore, or even metal, and in the process, it's become an empty signifier that has little meaning other than that of a cheap adjective. Which is one reason why today's punk enthusiasts turn to the past, when the sound and attitude was fresh and all the freaks had discovered a new art form.
New Town Animals is a Vancouver punk band that does their best to turn back the clock to a point somewhere between 1978 and 1982 and Is Your Radio Active? is an album that you could pull from an old, dusty discount bin at your local vinyl trader if only it wasn't released this year. There's nothing new to the music. There's nothing deep or engaging, or even particularly challenging, to be found here. There's certainly nothing threatening.
So why is it still so good?
Perhaps its because New Town Animals disposes with two decades worth of musical progress since punk was new and (some say) pure. Forget MTV. Forget New Wave, hip-hop, electronica, and please, please forget Green Day and Blink-182. These are the things that Is Your Radio Active? and New Town Animals are subtly asking you to do. They come in with cool punk names, like Nick Newtown (Vocals), Jeffie Pop (Guitar), Bobby Beefy (Guitar), Stevie Kicks (Bass), and simply Chucky (Drums). They play their music fast, sloppy, noisily, and loud with the simple riffage and hyper-kinetic tempos that kept us all slam dancing with a grin on our faces. They play songs about rock and roll, fake rebels, bad relationships, and fighting back against the world. And they have the slurred, half-enunciated, whining-with-attitude, British punk vocal sound, made authentic by the fact that Nick Newtown was actually born in England.
There's little on this disc, or in this band, that will appeal to those looking for musical genius or depth of songwriting. But it's forty minutes of pure fun, nonetheless. Maybe it's that they've managed to keep the clock stuck in the late '70s, or maybe it's that New Town Animals just plays the music they love. Is Your Radio Active? opens with the sounds of a radio being randomly tuned through the dial, hitting on brief seconds of classic and/or infamous punk tunes (the Ramones tune is too easy, but you get bonus points if you can spot the Sigue Sigue Sputnik tune), and this sets the mood for the rest of the album. Even if punk has lost its aspect of rebellion in this jaded contemporary world, there's still a hell of a lot of tradition to have fun with. Their cover of The Stripes' "Observer" is wonderful, and songs like "Acme Rebel" and "Three Steps Backward" have a timeless quality that is almost charming. They even slow things down a bit to play a pop-punk tune ("Sitting Along with You"), but throw in the twist of the male narrator turning down his chance with a girl, just because. And the whole time the disc maintains a youthful, almost adolescent energy that makes you think that punk may not really be dead.
If you like quick and messy, down and dirty, fun punk, you should pick this one up. Fans of Stiff Little Fingers, the Ramones, Dead Boys, the Smugglers, or other like-minded upbeat bands will enjoy this a lot. Hell, even fans of Green Day and Blink-182 will probably like this disc. Pick it up, put it on, and rock out.