From a first glimpse of the cover art for the debut album from Teen Judge looks like it could be a long lost Scandinavian psych prog record with the murky image of a couple longhairs gazing into a bubbling stream while a sinister robed figure emerges from the dark woods. No, it’s not a newly discovered Kebnekaise album, but something better. It’s the first full album to feature John Kimbrough’s songs and blazing guitar playing in nearly 20 years. His 90s band Walt Mink put out four consistently excellent but underrated albums, and a live album released after the band broke up in 1997. While they never quite reached the level of acclaim they deserved, the band’s scorching live shows were legendary among a not-so small contingent of fans who reliably packed venues throughout the band’s lifetime, and even after. Spurred by bassist Candice Belanoff’s desire to shake off the dust and rock, the band has played a handful of shows over the past decade. Kimbrough has been busy writing music for film and TV (winning a couple Emmys), producing (Tenacious D’s Rize Of The Phoenix) and contributing some songs and guitar heat to power pop band Valley Lodge. With a nagging creative urge to record another full album, Kimbrough built a garage studio (Janky East) and found some stellar musicians to work with, including guitarist Stein Malvey, drummer Jay Skowronek (Maxine, Turbulent Hearts) and bassist Tim Lefebvre (Tedeschi Trucks, David Bowie’s Blackstar band). If you watched the Grammys, Tim was the tall dude with the hair accepting a Grammy with his bandmates on behalf of Bowie.
That’s a lot of power under the hood of basically an unknown rock band. Kimbrough uses it wisely with a finely crafted set of ten songs that are clearly a progression from Walt Mink’s Colossus. While it’s literally garage rock, Teen Judge achieves a well balanced, full bodied sound that is heavy when necessary, but also nimble enough to support the more melodic moments. Kimbrough’s arsenal of folk, glam, psych, punk and power pop blend into a style that might sound a little weird to a newcomer, but is recognizably his own. “Rocket To San Francisco” kicks the record off with Kimbrough’s agile fretwork, a frenetic but rhythmically disciplined style that is best seen in person to be fully appreciated. The band urged Kimbrough to use two of his songs that originally appeared on the first Valley Lodge album in 2005, “Naked City” and “Sold,” and both are outstanding songs that benefit from the Teen Judge treatment. “Shocker” is a great groove rocker that subtly shows off Kimbrough’s appreciation for bands like ZZ Top (see their smoking cover of “Nasty Dogs And Funky Kings”). “Horns Of Envy” has a dreamy post-shoegaze feel, with a hook and vocal chorus that is right up there with the best of anything by Swervedriver or Bob Mould’s Sugar, without the dated production. “Drunk Dreams” alternates gauzy, psychedelic tremolo with explosive, pummeling percussion. Then it glides, soars, and gloriously explodes again. “Little Thing” is a fast riff rocker, the second half highlighted by some rapid fire soloing.
Kimbrough’s vocals are in great form throughout. While some consider his relatively high range an acquired taste, it’s deepened slightly over the years. I like his phrasing, which at times reminds me of prime Elvis Costello. The album wraps up with the gentle, elegiac “New Beginning” which outshines his last great closer, “Freetime.” Just two months into the year, there’s already been over 60 albums in my playlist that I enjoy. Teen Judge has been right at the top, with only the upcoming second album from Swedish favorites Troubled Horse coming close to challenging it.
With romantic notions of the experience of buying physical product, Teen Judge is only available in vinyl. Due to it’s limited production run, it’s pricy, but for anyone who values great guitar-driven rock music, not just fans of Kimbrough’s previous work, it’s worth it. The band will likely do a digital release later this year. They’re playing album release shows at First Avenue/7th St. Entry in Minneapolis this Monday, March 6, and The Redwood Bar in Los Angeles March 7. It’s unlikely the band will ever tour extensively, so catch them when you can! | Buy