Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine – White People and the Damage Done (Music Review)

White People and the Damage Done cover

Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine – White People and the Damage Done

It’s strange that I summarized Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine’s last album by saying that the band’s creativity covered up Biafra’s dated lyrics. In their new release White People and the Damage Done, it’s an energetic Biafra driving the project. The musicians are versatile for a punk act, but they’re mainly content to back up the star lead. Their accomplishment here is that the Guantanamo School appear at first glance to be a straightforward band, because their variations mimic Biafra’s own flights of fancy so well.

All that said, White People gives you exactly what you’d expect from a Jello Biafra album. His nasal voice and prankster attitude provide everything from intellectual arguments and ad hominem attacks, usually in service of political screeds but sometimes just for shock value. Biafra’s recent career in spoken word performances comes through for better and worse in “Shock-U-Py!”. At its best, the song is an inspirational speech set to music. Other times, though, his attempts at catchy verbal hooks fall flat: Lines like “to all of those who Occupy, and feel the spirit of Shockupy” are earnest but cringe-worthy.

The highlight is the blistering “Mid-East Peace Process”, a song that rivals “Holiday in Cambodia” in its ability to actually shock and unsettle the listener. The first verse is a violently noisy depiction of a strike on Palestine, while the second is slow, paranoid story of Israelis wondering who around them could be a suicide bomber. So potent that it should come with a trigger warning for anyone who’s lived through the past decade of fear, it will grab anyone’s sympathy by the time Biafra is screaming “I don’t want to live in a world like this, you don’t want to live in a world like this… No one should have to live in a world like this!”

It’s a sign of the album’s weakness that that song is followed up by the lackluster “Hollywood Goof Disease”. Biafra has nothing new to say about people’s obsession with celebrities, and his complaints (“what in the world is a Kardashian?”) are the opposite of “Mid-East Peace Process”‘ insightful commentary.

There are too many weak songs like that. “Crapture” takes easy shots at fundamentalist beliefs and makes an unsuccessful attempt at slowing down the music, while “Burgers of Wrath” is virtually unchanged from the version Biafra recorded twenty years ago. Other than “Mid-East Peace Process”, Biafra is at his best when he sticks to focused political rage that preaches to the choir. His distinctive voice and off-kilter views still keep that fairly interesting, but it doesn’t feel like he’s taking chances any more.

The album needs more songs like the remix of “The Brown Lipstick Parade” that appears at the end. The original is one of the good-but-unsurprising tracks on the album, but the bonus version replaces most of the guitar riffs with a brass band, to great effect. It’s still punk, but with an absurd carnival atmosphere that fits Biafra’s voice and jokes. If he’s going to turn out the occasional gem and fill the rest of the album with familiar repeats, then the goal should be unexpected twists like that.

Grade: B-

 
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