This Little Underground: Next-gen punk with SWMRS and the Frights 

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Photo by Mike Dunn

The recent double-headed bill of SWMRS and the Frights (Feb. 26, Backbooth) was a showcase loaded with the next wave of West Coast punk's direct descendants. SWMRS' lineup includes the son of Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, and both bands are currently riding albums produced by Zac Carper of FIDLAR, a scene-blazing band that features two sons of T.S.O.L.'s Greg Kuehn. But don't get too carried away with that last shared credit and notions of inheritance. Neither are FIDLAR's heirs apparent – at least not yet.

Oakland's SWMRS are punk kids, and like kids, focus isn't always their rule. As their new album, Drive North, shows, they're in all manner of genres. Some praise this mixtape perspective as a modern virtue, but the truth is that the returns are mixed. They're a fun, sunny band, but they're a little obvious and can swing from youthful freshness to pop cheese, sometimes in the same song. Seriously, a paean to Miley Cyrus is as un-punk as it gets. However, onstage and free of the indulgent studio gloss, they're more direct and convincing.

San Diego's the Frights are truer to the current school of garage punk and rock with more fire and precision. With threads of surf, doo-wop and some interestingly weird sonics, they're a bratty, shambolic tumble with lots of catchy, scuffed hooks.

Although these bands aren't exactly furthering the cause yet, the show, even in all its developmental adolescence, was a nice glimpse into the next class of the punk scene. The audience was so young that the Frights' cover of Violent Femmes' "Add It Up" – which absolutely would've incited a parent pit – didn't quite pop off as much as the band probably hoped. But it was a scene, and I like what I saw in the crowd.

The pit was total mania, like a big teenage bounce house. It was gloriously wild but not violent, and cool enough to be coed – almost nothing like the tough-guy scene I came up in. I learned a shitload of things from those days, things I wouldn't trade for anything and things today's youth could probably use a dose of. But I like that kids have this new reality. I think my 15-year-old self would've learned a lot from this, too.

The Beat

Each time I see them, I root harder and harder for Heartless Bastards (Feb. 24, the Social). They started out true, with pure gut, and they've been able to expand and evolve without losing any of that. Although the band's musical heritage has deep roots in American music, the mighty and enduring frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom has proven to be slave to neither genre nor time. Game to mine garage, rock, blues and roots with equal comfort, they're anything but purists. Their touchstones are classic but their pulse is raw and evergreen. And while others of their ilk have chosen a side – between toughness or heart, viscera or soul – Wennerstrom has transcended niche by threading the needle with a well-calibrated blend of beauty, earthiness and power. That's why it's been great to see their steady climb from being your favorite band's favorite band (they were first widely championed by the Black Keys) to establishing a solid fan base of their very own.

Hopefully, the same will happen soon for opener Susto from Charleston, South Carolina. Although still quite young, they've been keeping very good company with modern Southern-rock royalty including native contemporaries like Band of Horses and Shovels and Rope. Staking some gorgeous ground between Futurebirds and Deer Tick, their brand of country-rock is more taste and clarity than diesel and beer. Their exceptional melodies come in long, lean, curling lines set against sonic atmosphere that's rich and bright.

Susto may have less name recognition than some of their peers but they're actually packing more intrinsic goods than many of the marquee names already. Elegant and indie but with a clear, beautiful twang, they're easily one of the most melodically perfect of an already deep class. Stuff this clearly good seldom stays buried. Keep an eye on these guys.


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