Posts Tagged ‘ Guantanamo School of Medicine ’

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-

 

Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine – Enhanced Methods of Questioning (Music Review)

Enhanced Methods of Questioning cover

Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine – Enhanced Methods of Questioning

The centerpiece of Enhanced Methods of Questioning is the 18-minute hidden track, “Metamorphosis Exploration On Deviation Street Jam”, which is basically one of Jello Biafra’s spoken word pieces put to music. The Gauntanamo School of Medicine’s meandering space-rock provides a backing for Biafra to riff off of as he gives an inspirational speech about his life as a freak. My first impression was that there would be no point in ever hearing it again, but it actually is worth returning to from time to time. Like a punk take on jazz jams, it works as both a twisted sort of background music and as a bravado performance piece.

That experimental jam actually provides a contrast to the rest of the album, which otherwise feels like the return to form that Dead Kennedys fans have been hoping Biafra would deliver for years. Don’t expect it to be exactly the same, of course – Biafra is unlikely to ever repeat himself. But the normal tracks have the hard, angry edge and vocal focus that is often missing from Biafra’s side projects. The hardcore foundation and vocal delivery is combined with a more metal sensibility, and the songs tend to go on longer with more variety.

The main problem with Enhanced Methods is that it has only five tracks. I’m told it’s an EP, but I have no idea whether to believe that: Ignoring the hidden tracks, it’s actually longer than the band’s nine-song debut album. And while the total play length sounds satisfying, the mix of punk intensity with drawn-out songs makes it feel skimpy as a whole.

The Guantanamo School of Medicine may be the stars of this, with a flexible style and thrashing delivery that sometimes has to cover up for a lack of ideas from Biafra. Songs like “Victory Stinks” (about the danger of ignored veterans snapping) and “Invasion of the Mind Snatchers” (proselytic Christians) could be pulled from any point of his thirty-year career, while the Bob Dole-takedown in “Miracle Penis Highway” is well over a decade late. (It would have been a career highlight for Biafra if it had come out on time, though. The contention that Viagra cured Dole’s politics is inspired.) “Dot Com Monte Carlo”, on the other hand, is a clearly present-day complaint about the gentrification of San Francisco. Without any clever things to say, though, it just sounds like the mean-spirited ramblings of someone who wants the kids off his lawn. The only unexpected topic is Henrietta Lacks’ story, told in “The Cells That Will Not Die”.

Yes, that’s every album track covered in one paragraph. None are perfect (unless you ignore the timing of “Miracle Penis Highway”), but Biafra’s strange charisma shines through even when his ideas sound stale. That high-pitched, sardonic voice is one of the defining features of American punk, and it’s great to hear it in this context. Enhanced Methods may feel lacking in some ways, but the potential shown is thrilling. Between the classic approach in the main tracks and the experimentation of the hidden one, this is a step in the right direction for Biafra.

Grade: B-