Rock Capsule Reviews
I review new things on this site, but that includes anything that is new to me. I have a pile of rock and punk CDs I recently bought that range from two to ten years old. A couple are disqualified because I already knew them from years ago, but there are five that I hadn’t heard before.
“New to me” doesn’t necessarily mean new (or relevant) to you, and not all my readers want to read about a bunch of rock bands anyway. Also, I’m going to be posting a lot of music reviews in the next couple weeks, as I try (and fail) to get through my 2011 backlog before the obligatory best of the year article. So to keep my music reviews from dominating the site, I’ve written up short ones for these older albums, combined them into one post, and hidden them below the fold.
Duane Peters & The Hunns: Wayward Bantams
Though this streetpunk band doesn’t veer far from US Bombs, Peters’ main band, the music stays a little more in the background to let Peters’ vocals take center stage. This sounds good on paper, but like most punk, it can only be as good as the vision and lyrics of the frontman. These don’t do very well by that measurement. “Surf Sacrifice” tells about a friend who gets so high he dives off a cliff and kills himself, with an implication that this “sacrifice” was somehow meaningful. “Canker Sore of Greenwhich St.” is about a mass-murdering pedophile, and “Wild Animals” is about how “we drink and shoot all day”.
All of this is fair game for the brutally honest territory of punk, but none of it is very interesting or provides any insight into the lives of these people around him. And Peters doesn’t seem interested in talking about himself, either. In this album, he comes across as a fairly disgusting person with none of the charisma that should be necessary to lead a punk band.
The low points are two spoken-word sections featuring people screaming at each other – one with a junkie begging his friend for something to “run a hustle” with, and the other with a woman shrieking at a man who didn’t leave her any drugs to wake up to. Those provided me with the most uncomfortable experience I’ve had while listening to a CD.
Heavy Trash: Midnight Soul Serenade
Jon Spencer will always be best known for Blues Explosion, but his new band is now as established as that ever was. So established, in fact, that Midnight Soul Serenade even shows signs that Heavy Trash is stagnating. He continues with his throwback rockabilly sound, playing with the effortless confidence that can only come from appropriating a past style. His modern sensibilities and ironic tendencies dominate the songs, but he’s confident enough to never state them outright. (One song opens with him talking to a telephone operator and later namechecks Snoop Dogg and Jeffrey Lee Pierce, but feels no need to draw attention to the anachronism.) But it all sounds like what one would expect from the band’s first two albums, and has no real new ideas. This is the first time Spencer has ever seemed to stay in place, and and though he’s surprisingly comfortable with it, he needs that forward momentum for inspiration.
The problem may be that before this album, he had been touring with The Sadies. Spencer sounded his best when performing with the talented Good brothers, and they played a large role on Going Way Out With Heavy Trash. With them gone, the music here is still technically proficient, but soulless.
Midnight Soul Serenade is a consistently good album, even moreso than Heavy Trash’s debut. Despite this, it’s easily the least vital of their output so far.
Rancid: B Sides And C Sides
Rancid may have gone through a lot of phases over the years, but even at their worst, their music has stood above most of their contemporaries. That makes a decade-spanning collection of non-album tracks as big a deal as most bands’ new releases would be. Fans will already recognize several songs from B Sides And C Sides, but there will still be a full album’s worth of new material for all but the most hardcore collectors.
Judging by this disc, Rancid always had a pretty solid understanding of which songs were their best. The B-sides previously released on singles are all almost as good as the A-list material they were supporting, while the unreleased tracks are generally not up to the band’s normal standards. Many of these were also released on compilations; These are often as good as album tracks, but just had a different sound that wouldn’t have fit in with Rancid’s other songs. Calling these “B-sides” is almost misleading.
Though my copy didn’t say anything on the outside, it turned out to also contain Rancid’s complete debut EP as bonus tracks. I’m not sure if there’s an easy way to tell if those will be on sealed copies of the CD or not. I can’t find this in MP3 stores, and Amazon has a $40 difference between the versions that do and don’t include the EP. I wouldn’t say that these are worth that much (the EP was only 11 minutes long), but they are an excellent, vicious snapshot of the band’s early days.
With or without those bonus tracks, this is a great collection for any Rancid fan.
Star Fucking Hipsters: Never Rest In Peace
Star Fucking Hipsters is immediately identifiable as a project of Stza, previously of Choking Victim and Leftöver Crack. It has the same “crack rock steady” mix of dirty punk, ska, and metal, but adds new members from a variety of other punk bands. It also focuses solely on preaching-to-the-choir political lyrics. Songs have titles such as “Church & Rape”, and lyrics like “for every innocent that gets murdered in the fray, we’ll fight 3000 miles away”.
While Stza’s bands have always been uneven, the missteps on Never Rest In Peace are harder to separate from the high points. This has a stronger focus on metal instrumentation, which has never been the strong point of these projects. And while the new singers add some interesting variety (especially from Nico de Gaillo), the production simply isn’t up to the task of keeping multiple screaming vocalists and their abrasive music from sounding muddy.
Highlights include the bouncy ska-punk “The Civilization Show” and the righteously angry anti-torture “You’ll Never Rest In Peace”. These are as good as anything the bands that gave birth to Star Fucking Hipsters have put out. But overall, there isn’t enough to make this album stand out. The music is a mess, and the unsubtle lyrics are rarely worth the effort to decipher. But don’t be surprised by that: After all, “poetry is dead. Police beat it to the ground and then they shot it in the head.”
Titus Andronicus: The Airing of Grievances
I’d thought that Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor was just a guilty pleasure of mine, but then it ended up on everyone’s Best of 2010 lists. Apparently their unashamedly over-the-top evolution of emo had more popular appeal than I thought. So now I have their debut, The Airing of Grievances, as well. More or less like I should have expected, it has all the elements that made The Monitor great, but a little more raw.
The emo sound is just a starting point for them. Though they aren’t afraid of that subgenre’s embarrassing extremes (seriously, one verse is about the pain of being born), they are too flamboyant, artistic, and inventive to stay within its boundaries: Song titles directly reference Bruegel and Camus, with lyrics like “I was born into self-actualization”. In other words, they scratch that “guilty pleasure” itch without insulting the listener’s intelligence.
It’s a difficult line to walk, though, and this debut doesn’t always hit the target as well as their later work. Occasionally, it does seem a little more embarrassing than artistic, and the rougher vocal production obscures much of what should make Titus Andronicus stand out. Still, though, it’s an enjoyable prelude to the masterpiece they would make two years later.