Back in the 00’s, US punks Chinese Telephones released a few split EPs and an album on It’s Alive Records (home of Gateway District, The Methadones, City Mouse and others) before calling time before the end of decade. They received some positive press, but in punk terms, never seemed to be mentioned as often as they deserved to be. This had as much to do with an over-subscribed scene as anything else. For those outside of Milwaukee, chances are that the only real encounters you had with the band back then came courtesy of the audio widget on the Last FM website which, in a pre-Spotify age, would happy drop tracks from the Chinese Telephones album between better known material from Teenage Bottlerocket, The Copyrights and The Lawrence Arms.
Chinese Telephones seemed to be one of those bands consigned to the cultist of punk histories and probably never likely to record any new material. With that in mind, this EP – released in October 2023 – could easily be chalked up as one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. Even with the production and backing vocals being a little rough and ready, it feels good that the ’Phones (with a rejigged line-up) are committed to having another stab at being kings of the Wisconsin punk scene – and beyond.
‘Radianna’ wastes no time in selling the band’s preferred brand of punk when the track tears forth with a riff that sounds like an old Screeching Weasel banger augmented by a bigger drum sound. Hammering through a couple of minutes’ worth of high octane punk, the band sounds really enthused – clearly glad to be back – and the speed driven riff brings out the very best in Daniel James’s trebly guitar sound. Joining the tight riff, the track has a semi-slurred lead vocal that really boosts the trashy feel throughout and with a pointed lead guitar break, and latterly, a busy lead guitar, it’s a number with a really energetic feel. There’s a half decent chorus in here, too, but it seems a little buried within the bluster until a few plays in. Overall, though, it’s very good; the kind of fuss free opener that’ll make extant fans glad of the newly resurrected band, and first time listeners think about backtracking for a listen to that 2007 LP.
Opting for a much bigger melody, ‘Come and See Me’ switches the mood for a hard edged power pop sound, on a track where crashy drums and loud, chiming guitars take up the bulk of the joyful noise. The end result sounds like punk infused take on old Flamin’ Groovies tunes – complete with a well executed, twangy lead break – and the band are able to take this in their stride, delivering riff after riff, sounding sharp but, above all, as if they’re bringing something vital to the genre. It’s possible to hear the enthusiasm in the lead vocal throughout, but when joined by a simple harmony, or approaching that obligatory key change for a big finish, it sounds even better. …And, of course, you’ll find the old Ronettes drum break recycled brilliantly during an even more retro bridge section too, so in terms of a classic sound, this has a little of everything. It’s all recycled with love, but it results in the best Chinese Telephones track this time out.
Leaning back into the punkier riffs, ‘Tramping Down My Soul’ injects a little punk ‘n’ roll into the standard punky backdrop, which the band very much use to their advantage. Daniel’s lead guitar sound takes on a bigger twang when appropriate, and Justin’s lead vocals are delivered with even more energy, and when going into the chorus he’s absolutely flying, without a care for perfection, but in the best possible way. Sometimes sounding like a raw version of an old Peawees tune, this is just about tuneful enough to win over the 90s pop punk crowd, yet raw enough to sell the band’s DIY heart to those who like things just that little bit rougher, giving listeners the best of both worlds, before a cover of The Dictators’ ‘Loyola’ wraps everything up with a rousing power pop/pop punk hybrid. The arrangement sticks closely to the original, and at first sounds like The Only Ones’ ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ before sharing some of the strongest garage rock melodies, showcasing more great guitar work and throwing more of a focus on vocal harmonies. As you’d expect with the influences that inform the self-penned numbers, this is a take on an old tune that fits very nicely with the band’s own work.
With the help of streaming services – for better or worse – and the rise of Bandcamp since the last bid for Chinese Telephones’ punk domination, the online world puts the band in a better place to reach a bigger audience with ‘Outta My Hands’. And its a good thing, too, since these four songs present a great line in ragged punk and blisteringly noisy power pop. With a selection of great riffs, roughly hewn choruses and a well-chosen cover tune, this plays fairly safely with US punk traditions, but the tight sound will be more than enough to make the material a hit with many fans of good, melodic punk. In a world that often feels like it’s falling apart, Chinese Telephones feel strangely reliable.