Andrew Jackson Jihad – Candy Cigarettes, Capguns, Issue Problems and Such (Music Review)

Candy Cigarettes, Capguns, Issue Problems and Such cover

Andrew Jackson Jihad - Candy Cigarettes, Capguns, Issue Problems and Such

What makes some jokes worth repeating, but not others? Many people will enjoy watching a funny movie over and over, but it can be almost painful to sit through the act of a comedian you’ve seen before. Funny songs can work either way. Candy Cigarettes, Capguns, Issue Problems and Such, a reissue of Andrew Jackson Jihad’s early releases, shows examples of both extremes.

The songs are stripped-down anti-folk, often nothing more than drums, an acoustic guitar, and Sean Bonnette’s high off-key voice. The music ranges from sweet and folky to an aggressive sound reminiscent of a high-school Modest Mouse cover band. The lyrics are tend towards irreverent, and often obscene, humor. And that’s where my questions about the nature of jokes arise.

Most humor comes from some element of surprise or subverted expectations. If you know what to expect, the joke doesn’t seem as funny any more. I think that comedic movies work so well because they are structured around a plot structure that could just as easily be serious. We rarely enjoy a contextless joke more than once, which is why comedians have such trouble. But when the jokes are mixed with something else, such as a plot arc, they can remain fresh. Perhaps this is because these other elements don’t grow old, so we aren’t bored even when we remember the punchlines. Or perhaps we still enjoy jokes as long as we can share them with someone new, and the unwitting characters in the movie are new to the joke each time.

Andrew Jackson Jihad’s songs work best when they are songs. A few of them are nothing more than funny lyrics, so there is no reason to listen more than once. “Little Brother” is the best example of this, as a musically-deficient song about how the narrator gave his brother fetal alcohol syndrome, but made up for it by buying him a crack whore in grade school. There’s no reason to listen to it a second time. (And without a tolerance for sick humor, many people wouldn’t even want to listen to that one once.) “Smokin'” (a song about cigarettes and being cool) and “Daddy” (about someone whose success is all due to his abusive father) just barely survive on further listens.

However, “Ladykiller” is a wonderful song to listen to over and over again, despite the horrible pun at its core. (Women are attracted to the narrator because he’s such a “lady killer”, but, you know, he also kills ladies.) This is partly because the music is so catchy and upbeat that it could work as a fun pop-folk song if it had different lyrics. But there is also an intriguing character hinted at between the lines of the song: The narrator doesn’t like to kill ladies; he just does it because that’s who he is. It’s the kind of gimmick that falls apart if examined directly, but stays funny when the singer just refers to it obliquely.

Later songs in Candy Cigarettes show a band that has gained a little more subtlety. When the songs stop telling a funny story, and instead focus on amusing but difficult to interpret lyrics, they extend their life quite a bit. As a sort of folk-punk They Might Be Giants, but with the geeky references replaced by stoner concerns, Andrew Jackson Jihad works quite well. “Survival” is an excellent song, throwing out a bunch of conflicting one-liners about “how I learned how to survive”. (Of course, that works as part of the joke, as the song specifically lists screwing with the listeners as a survival tactic. And the excellent Woody Guthrie reference is fun as well.) These elements were still there in their early days (“God Made Dirt” channels their anger very effectively), but improved as time went on.

The other tricky thing about telling jokes is that it is difficult to be serious at the same time. It is fun to hear the thoughts of a mass-murderer in “Bad Stuff” (though it’s another song that wears thin quickly) because we know the singer is not serious. But there are a couple innocently good-natured songs on the album as well, and one of them (“People”) follows “Bad Stuff” immediately. Taking the murderous lyrics with a grain of salt means that the earnest ones sound off. At least in the context of this early work, the band hadn’t yet learned how to make their points mix with the humor.

Candy Cigarettes is a very uneven album. A few songs aren’t very good, and several others only work as one-time novelties. But some of them truly are fun, and I’d even call a few of them excellent. This was my first exposure to the band (on the recommendation of a friend), and I am curious to see where they went from here.

Grade: B-

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