...pull the pin from my hair and kiss it all goodbye.

"Hello wonderful. I seem to have caught you out of the corner of my eye tonight."

This is how Copper's lone full-length, "Drag Queen", begins. It's opening track, "Sissy", starts off slow and delicate, driven by guitar arpeggios and Meaghan Ball's voice singing words of sweet desire. "You're so beautiful. This time I just know it's you. You're the one for me, and I think I'm falling in love again." Based on this first verse, you might expect some sort of glorious love song, swelling into string-laden crescendos, or something like that... but no, because as the verse ends, the guitarists launch into an uptempo riff, and the drummer soon follows them with a near-hardcore speed beat, pulling the entire band into the most frenetic song of their short career. And it's fitting, based on what Meaghan starts to sing at that point: "Hello wonderful. It's 5:01 and you haven't called me at all." Ah, see, now we're at the real crux of the matter--"Sissy" isn't a syrupy song about falling in love, it's an uptight, frustrated tune about getting jilted. "I've written you letters, sent you pictures of me when I was a child, with a smile. I've given you all that I had, that's really no lie." Meaghan sings this quickly, rushing to keep up with the drummer's pounding snare, a beat that one can imagine approximating the tapping of her heels on her bedroom floor as she paces, anxiously awaiting a call that won't come. After another verse, she proclaims, "I think I'm falling out of love again." The band drops into a half-speed chorus, then breaks down to a quiet interlude, over which Meaghan now wails "All I ever wanted was for you to call me back!" As she sings this lyric, the guitarists, who play almost nothing during the quiet section, stomp on their distortion pedals and start blasting out noisy chords in a manner worthy of the best shoegaze bands of the early 90s--bands which were doubtless big influences on Copper's sound.

This influence is even more obvious later, on the album's title track. "Drag Queen" begins with 10 seconds of grating feedback before the drummer counts the band into the actual song. On the verses, the guitarists play low, distorted chords as the bass player plays a melodic line that is an octave above rather than the usual octave below the guitar chords. This gives the entire song a sense of floating in the air ethereally, as if it's a pillow buoying Meaghan's vocal into the air, where it reverbs around the room. She sings from a place that sounds both hazy and scared, which she confirms almost immediately: "You stretch your hand out to frighten me. You're frightening me, I'm quivering, I'm shivering, I'm shuddering, I can't even breathe." Unlike "Sissy", the backdrop here, though noisy, is also slow and downbeat. On the choruses, the guitarists crank out more feedback noise, even as Meaghan sings, "My palms hit the wall, my face hits the tile. My head is spinning." Something bad is happening here, and it's not really defined, but it's effects are made quite clear: "I can't go on, all my hope is gone. My integrity's lost. My boundaries are crossed." The second chorus ends just after the song's halfway point, and when it does, everything drops out except for the drums. This is when the song changes completely. The first thing to come back in is the vocal, and without guitars to give the impression of floating and reverberation, Meaghan's voice loses the hazy tone of the first part of the song. Instead she sounds clearheaded, and sings her next lines in a dry, declarative tone: "I'll pull myself up, wipe the mascara to the side, pull the pin from my hair and kiss it all goodbye." At the word "all", the drums drop out and the guitars and bass return, and suddenly the last phrase, "kiss it all goodbye", seems once again to be floating ethereally. However, the tone change has been too much for the guitars to overcome, and even the ambient reverberation as Meaghan repeats, over and over, "I'll kiss it all goodbye", still isn't enough to put her back in the place she was in for the first half of the song. Now, instead of frightened and vulnerable, she sounds like she has reclaimed power, pulled herself out of a bad situation. But what does it mean? What do lines about wiping away mascara and letting down an elaborate hairdo really refer to, especially in the context of the song's title, "Drag Queen"? Well, Meaghan Ball isn't here to ask, but I have a theory: in this song, "Drag Queen" is a phrase intended to evoke female impersonation, but it's a song about Meaghan Ball, herself a female, feeling trapped by the impersonation of a feminine ideal that she is forced by society to imitate on a day to day basis. It's interesting, because at the time that "Drag Queen" was released, there were really only two comfortable roles for a girl in the hardcore scene to assume: that of a short-haired tomboy who dressed androgynously and moshed it up just like the boys, or that of a glamour queen who stood to the side in perfect makeup and clothes, with only a slight retro aesthetic to differentiate her from any mainstream preppie girl. Contemporary press photos indicate that Meaghan Ball fit the latter role, but the subtle statement "Drag Queen" appears to be making is one of discomfort with that role, and the trap it can be for a woman attempting to interact with men as an equal. And it may seem odd to say this, but this song has always really hit home for me. As a boy in that same hardcore scene, I never felt comfortable with the crew-cut, tough guy role that was expected of me, either. And yet, where else was there to go, for me or for Meaghan? I never really found a satisfactory answer to that, and I think "Drag Queen"s air of uncertainty and fear stems from the fact that Meaghan never did either.

Copper seemed like a promising band based on their first single, but "Drag Queen" only partly delivered on that promise, seeming more like half an album that was padded out to full-length. Four of its nine songs can definitely be interpreted as filler; first, the rerecordings of "Freckle" and "Tuesday's Child", which are definitely not as good as the original versions, and then the final two songs on the album, a cover of Morrissey's "There's a Place In Hell Reserved For Me And My Friends", and a directionless instrumental called "Studebaker". Where they disappeared to was never properly explained, but I've long had a theory that it had something to do with the sudden removal of Garrett Klahn from the band. He was the bassist and backing vocalist on the "Freckle"/"Tuesday's Child" 7 inch, and although his replacement, Steve Mack, received the credit on "Drag Queen", the fine print indicated that Garrett had actually played bass and sang backup on "tracks 1,3,5-9". Which, yes, means that Steve Mack only played on two of the album's nine songs. What happened there? I don't think anyone not directly involved can know for sure, but one clue might lie in the song "Caption". Smack in the middle (literally--it's track 5 out of 9) of multiple songs about jilted and unrequited lovers, "Caption" is a sincere and unabashed love song. It's slow and pretty, the guitars are undistorted throughout, and more than any other song on "Drag Queen", it's allegiance is with British guitar pop rather than hardcore or any sort of post-hardcore sound. "Wrap me in your arms on the street, below the glowing lamppost," Meaghan sings. "There you rest your weary cheek upon my ear, and you're whispering those words so dear: 'I could never leave you, I could never bear the thought. Don't ever go.'" So OK, this is obviously a syrupy love song, the only one "Drag Queen" has to offer. How could this, of all songs, hold the key to what broke up the band?

The answer is in a lyric that isn't even printed on the lyric sheet. At the end of the song, after the second chorus, there's a moment where the drums drop out, and both Meaghan Ball and a male vocalist (which, we see from the fine print, was Garrett Klahn), sing the lyric "Your place is at the heart of my everything" four times. The drums slowly build back up over these four repetitions, then bring the part to an end, and seem like they should end the song. However, one guitarist continues to play an arpeggio, and over this, quietly and by herself, Meaghan sings another line twice: "I wish you could hold me in your arms again." Unlike the rest of the song, which seems to be a celebration of a current love, this line depicts said love as having gone away. And it sounds like Meaghan doesn't like that it has. My theory, and it will doubtless never be confirmed or denied, especially at this late date, is that the band was both created and held together by a romantic relationship between Meaghan and Garrett. That relationship ended unexpectedly, and while the band tried to stay together, at first with Garrett still in it and later without him, it just didn't work. The only evidence I can offer to back this theory up--and it's slim evidence--is the last line from the lone album by Garrett's post-Copper band, Texas Is The Reason. Texas Is The Reason were much more successful than Copper, and these days, when Copper is nearly forgotten, a lot of people who've heard that Texas Is The Reason album have no idea that the final lyric of their song "A Jack With One Eye" has any greater significance. In that song, Garrett seems to be addressing a past lover: "You're not telling me nothing that I haven't heard before. You'll have to try harder than that, you'll have to dig deeper than that." Later he says, "Raise it up, so I can see just what you're doing to me. Do you even know why?" It's at this point that he makes the copper reference. "Your place is still at the heart of my everything," he says, making it sound like he didn't want things to end any more than Meaghan might have. So the question becomes: who ended it? And what happened to end it? Between the final line of "Caption" and all of "A Jack With One Eye", it's nearly impossible to tell, considering that both parties sound like they were hurt, and didn't want things to end that way.

I guess we'll never know. But it's an interesting story.

Copper - Sissy
Copper - Drag Queen
Copper - Caption
Texas Is The Reason - A Jack With One Eye

[Note: original 7 inch version of "Freckle" added to yesterday's blog post.]



Saturday night, and I'm all alone in my room.

I got sandbagged by a record yesterday. I've been digging out old records from the mid-90s for a group project that I'm involved in on a certain message board, where we're all making mp3s of records that have become hard to find in the intervening years. Due to my packrat tendencies and irrationally out-of-proportion love for music, I've got tons of stuff that fits the bill, and I've been slowly transferring it all to mp3 and posting it on the internet. Yesterday, I got around to a 7 inch by the band Copper, a short-lived Equal Vision band from the mid-90s who were best known in the hardcore scene, but sounded more like a British pop band, along the lines of The Sundays, than anything even remotely resembling hardcore. Their 7 inch, "Freckle" b/w "Tuesday's Child", was one of only two releases they had, the other being the LP "Drag Queen". They rerecorded the songs from the 7 inch for the LP, but the new versions just never worked as well for me, so I was making it a point to rip the 7 inch versions.

There was a time, many years ago now, when I played that 7 inch a lot. To this day, I know both songs word for word and can even remember the bassline to "Tuesday's Child", which I figured out in 1997. But it had been a long time since I heard the 7 inch--several years, I'm sure. So I guess I was a bit unprepared for the huge rush of emotion I felt when I heard the beginning of "Freckle". "Oh shit," I thought. "This is going to make me cry." Sure enough, by 30 seconds in, I was bawling. And I guess it makes sense--even though it's been years since I suffered through the sort of unrequited longing that Meaghan Ball is singing about on "Freckle", it's the kind of thing that's never very hard to remember. It stays with you. And it helps that she does a masterful job of describing it in the words.

Which is not to say that they're an example of brilliant, deathless verse, either. No, the reason that I'm so impressed with the lyrics to "Freckle" is their note-perfect simplicity. Even though not too much is really said in the song, nothing is left out. Every emotion, every experience, that is depicted in the song is described perfectly, in a way that leaves nothing for the listener to wonder about. It's all there. And it's married to one of the most perfect pop songs I've ever heard, which just makes the whole thing hit that much harder.

"Freckle" starts out with a hi-hat intro that leads directly into a catchy, upbeat verse riff. Meaghan Ball starts singing over it after a second, and her voice is doubled by that of bassist Garrett Klahn (more about him later), who is singing through enough reverb and from far enough back in the mix that it's impossible to tell what he's actually singing. However, the important part is that his vocal part adds emotional resonance to Meaghan's lead vocal, which begins with the phrase, "Saturday night and I'm all alone in my room." Those nine words are enough to paint a detailed picture for anyone who's ever been lonely and wished that they had someplace to go, someone to hang out with. The next line, "And all I can do is think of you", is equally evocative. And then, when she ends the verse with "But to you I don't even exist," the cumulative effect is crushing. It's a simple description of some pretty standard feelings that are so common as to be nearly universal, and yet, by capturing it so perfectly, she turns what could have been a cliche into something that will hit home with almost any listener who hears it.

In the chorus, Meaghan grows wistful, singing "If only I could kiss your tender lips, you'd crush me with your smile." It's the other side of the lonely nights in one's room--the fantasies of how wonderful it would be if you could finally win the heart of the one you desire. The music mirrors this wistful feeling, growing more restrained and almost melancholy in mood. The second verse kicks back in with its more driving riff, and the lyrics reflect this as well--"Yet every day you walk past my house, and you're holding another's hand, but you won't even turn to look my way." At moments like this, the mood of the song is almost defiant; there's a sense that Meaghan knows that she's being slighted, and deserves better, but in the end, as the choruses indicate whenever they come in, she can't let go of the beautiful picture within her head for long enough to convince herself that the better treatment she deserves is something worth abandoning the beautiful fantasies in her head. This is emphasized by the song's ending; rather than ending on an upbeat note, the final chorus slowly trails off until all that remains is a softly picked guitar line and Meaghan singing "You'd crush me with your smile..." over and over into the fade.

I guess the reason this song totally wiped me out yesterday is because of how strongly I can relate to this exact method of handling feelings for other people. It's pretty much always been how I dealt with things. Back when I was younger and had way more struggles from day to day with powerful feelings for people that I saw myself as having no chance with, songs like "Freckle", and pretty frequently "Freckle" in particular, were like life preservers for me. It made me feel a little more valid and a little less alone to hear someone else struggling with the same feelings. And hearing this song again brought it all back.

Not like it's as far in the past as I like to pretend, either. The truth is that I still do develop crushes on people. My confidence is so shattered these days, probably worse than it ever was when I was 21 or whatever, and I talk to girls I like even less now than I did then. The sad truth is that I had a crush on a girl who was the roommate of one of my good friends for over a year, throughout which she was single, and was always really friendly to me and would talk to me for 15 or 20 minutes at minimum every time I saw her around. And yet, I never did a damn thing about it, never even hinted at my feelings for her, and now, within the last two months or so, she's gotten a boyfriend. I did this to myself. I told myself throughout that year that if I tried, she'd shoot me down, give me the friend zone talk, and as right as I probably am about that, I never even tested the theory. I've buried a lot of these sorts of feelings, which I guess is what will happen when you go through several intense relationships in a row and have all of them end in a devastating manner, but they're all still there. And that's why listening to a Copper song that I haven't heard in years is enough to reduce me to tears.

Copper - Freckle



Spider-Man's Brand New Day.

A more general post about comics I've been reading lately is forthcoming, as well as hopefully some more music posts (I really want to talk about Grade, Carbomb, and Pearl Jam's "No Code" LP, among others), but I'm tired of how slack on content I've been lately, and I wanted to get something up here. Also, I've had a post about this whole Brand New Day thing percolating in my mind for a while. However, I'm pressed for time (and kinda for inspiration as well, at least in the moment), so this will mostly be culled from things I've written elsewhere.

First and foremost, if you didn't catch it, go back and read my rant about Amazing Spider-Man being turned into a thrice-monthly comic: here. Second, here's a message board post from January 15:

"by the way dudes, i hated the ending of "one more day" entirely and completely, which makes me feel really weird about the fact that i actually really like "brand new day" so far. it's just... damn it, what a fucking copout. they could have saved time and just said "hey guys, we realize that the events of the civil war painted us completely into a corner where spider-man is concerned, so we have to make them go away somehow. here, have a mystical bullshit story, and we'll pretend the last 20 years of the comic never happened." GOD, SO LAME."

Not exactly written thoughtfully, but it gets the point across. Finally, here is a letter I sent to Marvel comics about four days ago:

"Hi guys. I've been a bit uncertain about the Brand New Day revamp, and I still feel like you could have done better with the transition from Straczynski's run, but so far I have enjoyed the Brand New Day stories enough that it hasn't really bothered me. However, I have a bone to pick with the current month's story, and it specifically relates to Bob Gale's writing. Now, the plot has been fine--I haven't felt like it strained credibility or got boring or anything else that could have been bad. However, the man's scripting is just driving me nuts.

Let me explain. In recent years, the thought balloon has fallen out of favor, and there's a good reason for it. I read an interview with Brian Michael Bendis where he talked about how he originally tried to eliminate them completely in his writing, because most writers used them as a crutch. I agree with this reasoning--generally, when a character is shown with 5 paragraphs of thought-bubble per page, it's lazy exposition, and it's meant to telegraph plot points or character motivations that the writer isn't demonstrating in other ways. Dan Slott used some thought bubbles (though he made them caption boxes) in his arc a couple months ago, and he used them judiciously, without ever making me feel like I was getting overwhelmed by them. Generally, the characters' motivations were explained well enough through the dialogue and storytelling that very few thought bubbles were necessary. This was fine; it didn't bother me or pull me out of the story at all. However, Bob Gale's current story arc makes me feel like I'm drowning in thought bubbles (and don't even get me started on Freak's dramatic monologues on pages 11 and 16), most of them giving me information I could have figured out without them. You know the old writing maxim "show, don't tell?" Well, Gale is telling, not showing. It's bad writing and it's making his issues a slog instead of a fun read, like Slott and Guggenheim's issues were over the last couple of months.

Something needs to be done about this. I know that all of the writers are involved in an overseeing capacity on every issue, and I further know that, based on their work on this and other titles, at least Guggenheim and Slott are able to get by without this excruciating hackery (haven't read anything by Wells yet, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt). So please, if you're going to keep Bob Gale on the writing staff (and I'm not necessarily saying you should get rid of him), have the other staff writers take a bit more of an active role in the scripts for his issues. Clean up all the lazy exposition and help the Gale issues rise up to the quality of the issues by the other writers. I don't plan to quit reading the title, at least not anytime soon, but the last thing I want is for one month out of every four to be crappy while the other three months are good.

By the way, you're welcome to print this, though I can't imagine that you will."

In summation: I don't know about all this. So far I'm continuing to read, but I'm not at all sure that I will do so indefinitely. Right now, Ultimate Spider-Man is trouncing the original version. But then again, I guess that's been true since Bendis started that title.

I will almost certainly have more to say about this subject in the future.



This week in book reviews.

So I've started an account at goodreads.com, and for whatever reason, have gotten addicted to reviewing books that I've read. Since I read something like 3 to 5 books in any given week, this means I'm accumulating quite a few reviews over there. And in the interest of adding content to this blog whenever possible, I've decided that I'll start reposting those reviews here. Hopefully this will mean that I'll post at least one or two book reviews per week here, but we'll see how it goes. For now, here's every review I've written for that site so far (which means that this time, the title is a lie, since these reviews date back two weeks or so):

Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow (Finished March 10, 2008)
This book was a lot of fun. I'm a big fan of near-future sci-fi stuff, in which the world of the book resembles our own, except with a little bit more technology than we have right now. I'm also a big fan of the cyberpunk aesthetic, in which characters bend the world to their will through subversion of technology. This book combines those two approaches, in a way that reminds me that a technology-saturated world, in which both Big Brother-style observation and manipulation of the world and subversion of that world through hacking of one's daily life ar possible, is closer than it might seem. The book had a bit too cheery of a tone at many points, but I was inclined to forgive that on the basis that it's aimed at teenagers rather than adults. Also, it's pretty obviously a piece of propaganda, if an entertaining one, in favor of the message that "information wants to be free" and that one can take one's life back from continuing encroachment of corporate control. This might bother me if I were not in full agreement with this approach, so this book is probably not for conservatives. And the almost-relentless upbeat tone is probably not going to sit well with cynics either. On the whole, though, I really enjoyed this book, despite any drawbacks that may have come about as a result of its message and target demographics.

Feint Of Art, by Hailey Lind (Finished March 11, 2008)
At first, I really liked this book; at least, as much as I could see myself liking any book in this style. By that, I mean that it's the sort of mystery that places ultimate value on the puzzle inherent in the plot of the novel. A lot of people who read generic mass-market mysteries like these really only care about being entertained while they try to guess "whodunit" before they get to the end. And considering that this book has multiple murders which are committed by multiple murderers, I suppose in the end it's reasonably creative for the generic whodunit genre. However, those kinds of things aren't what I read books for, so I'm never going to like this sort of book but so much. At first, though, I thought it was going to be better than it ended up being. The main character started out interesting, and at first her character-related subplots were pretty neat. But of course, by halfway through the book, she was making more and more idiotic judgments and decisions, and the subplots had all devolved into vaguely romantic ones. I've read a good many books like these, just because I work at a mystery bookstore, and there are some trends I've noticed. First of all, female protagonists are often bumbling idiots who get into trouble that some big strong man (generally cast as a love interest) has to get them out of. Generally, whenever these big strong men are not in the act of saving the protagonist, their behavior towards her consists of, to put it bluntly, dismissive scumbaggery. This book is no exception--by the end of the book, the two scumbag dudes who showed up towards the beginning are being cast as love interests. And of course, the narrator, who has needed to be saved by both of them at one point or another, is willing to make irrational, poorly-considered decisions in favor of these scumbags, and in favor of spending time with them, despite the fact that she generally ends up in a horrible position every time she does so (one of the scumbags manages to strand her penniless and miles from home on two separate occasions, yet it's he whom she ends the book flying to Chicago to visit).

Let me put it plainly--this kind of writing disgusts me. And I meet a lot of middle-aged women who love these sorts of stories. I guess maybe they reinforce the messages they get from society: i.e. that women like them are flighty idiots who need big strong men to keep them out of trouble. And that those men will be dismissive of them in most situations--and rightly so, since they are, after all, flighty idiots. It's some kind of social-reinforcement feedback loop, I guess. Whatever it is, I hate it. And while I thought this book was not without redeeming qualities, and while I even enjoyed the first 60% or so of it, I gradually grew to hate it, and would not read another by this author.

This is just another in the long chain of books that make me think that the cozy/chick-lit subgenre is largely irredeemable, whether it's showing up in mainstream fiction, mystery, fantasy, or whatever other genre in which it might make an appearance. It makes me sad to see how well this shit sells.

Money Shot, by Christa Faust (Finished March 16, 2008)
So far, I've been a big fan of everything I've read that Hard Case Crime have released. They have a purposefully retro aesthetic, and are trying to bring back both the lurid appearance and dark, intense style of the pulp crime novels that were popular half a century ago. If the sales at the bookstore where I work are any indication, this is a popular idea. It's certainly something I'm into. It could be a total failure if the books weren't good, but all of the ones I've read so far have totally delivered on their aesthetic promise.

"Money Shot" is no exception. I was especially interested in this book based on its premise, it being the story of a porn star who is beaten and left for dead by crooked movie producers, but lives through her ordeal and comes back for revenge. Most of the book works really well, and it's obvious to me that Christa Faust knows quite a bit about the history and the behind-the-scenes workings of the porn industry (and yes, I say this as someone who is also pretty well-informed on such things. I'm not afraid to admit it). There were a couple of points towards the middle of the novel in which I found the direction of the plot a bit worrisome, as it would sometimes appear that the author was going for an easy, even cliche, plot development. Such developments aren't all that bad when they seem at least somewhat realistic, but in these situations, the cliche plot development would always have seemed like a cheat. Fortunately, Faust ultimately avoided all of these choices, and went for more creative, less predictable developments. I don't want to give away the ending, but I will say that I was glad it didn't involve any simple happy-ever-after resolution, as this would also have seemed like a cheat. I feel like a few plot points could have been improved, but "Money Shot" isn't the sort of mystery-related novel that's written like an intricate puzzle, so some weakness in the plot is a relatively minor point when compared with its overall success in telling a character-based story of vengeance. This is a very good book, on the whole.

Severance Package, by Duane Swierczynski (Finished March 17, 2008)
I flew through this book and enjoyed every minute of it. It's an action-packed story about a finance company that's actually a front organization for a black ops anti-terrorist squad. Apparently, the orders have come down for the entire squad to be liquidated, and the book begins with the boss telling his entire managerial staff that the reason he called them in for a Saturday morning meeting is because he has to kill them all (and himself as well). He's booby-trapped all of the exits from their offices on the 36th floor of a Philadelphia high-rise, and he would prefer that they all submit quietly to the quick, painless death he's offering them. They, of course, do not, but rather than banding together to get out of the situation, the employees instead demonstrate agendas of their own, some of which are in direct conflict. By 1/5 of the way through the book, the situation has become a bloody battle royale in which every person must fend for themselves and no one is what they seem.

This book is relatively short--only 250 pages--and almost all of it is devoted to straight-up action. The author almost certainly had to make a conscious choice to keep backstory and character development to a minimum. This choice could have hurt the book as a whole if it weren't for the fact that its incredibly fast-paced narrative was both creative and attention-grabbing. "Severance Package" is such a page-turner that you don't even miss the character detail that you're not given. In fact, it helps to keep the plot enjoyable despite the fact that the characters are all pretty much doomed from the start. If you cared about them too much, the many brutal things that happen to them over the course of the book might make the read less enjoyable and more of an ordeal. As it is, "Severance Package" stays fun despite the brutality. It's the sort of nihilistic, blackly humorous romp that the best post-modern action movies are made of. If this book isn't sitting on Robert Rodriguez's desk right now, it should be.

OK, there you go. More in a week or thereabouts.



Pop-punk resurrection: An odyssey in three parts

Part I

I'm starting to believe in pop-punk again. I'm really not sure whether it means that the genre as a whole is getting better and more vital after years of watered down, generic saturation, or whether it merely means that I've finally gotten over how fed up with the whole thing that I was by the late 90s. Because see, there was a time when I really liked pop-punk. I became aware of it in the early 90s, when I was still in high school, and for a few years, it was some of my favorite music. Back when Green Day was still on Lookout and Cringer still hadn't turned into J Church, i loved both of those bands and a good many more. Superchunk seemed more to me like melodic punk than indie rock, and most of the Lemonheads records you could buy at the time were on Taang! and sounded like it. The Buzzcocks were one of my favorite original 70s punk bands, and there was always The Descendents. A lot of different types of bands seemed like they could be at least broadly categorized as pop-punk, and I liked almost all of them. OK, Nofx were always bad, and Bad Religion got boring pretty quickly (certainly long before they'd made 16 albums or however many it's been by now), but for the most part, pop-punk was something I could expect to like.

However, that all went to hell by 1996 or so. Epitaph, Bad Religion's label, signed band after band who did the same sort of skate-friendly melodic punk that they did; meanwhile, Nofx created their own label, Fat Wreck Chords, and for the first few years, every band on the label sounded exactly like them (with the notable exception of Propagandhi, who were always better at incorporating many different styles of music than the bands they were lumped in with). By 1996, Fat Wreck Chords could (and did) release a label sampler with 15 different bands on it that all sounded exactly the same. And not only that, they all sounded like Nofx, who had always, to my mind, exemplified the worst elements of pop-punk. So I started to hate pop-punk, as a general rule. From then on, if I did discover a pop-punk band I actually liked, I would generally like them precisely because of the ways in which they were not typical of the genre.

Eventually, though, something changed where pop-punk was concerned. The simultaneous change and evolution of the sound known as "emo", which was mostly spurred by Lifetime's transformation from mid-tempo emo rockers to uptempo hardcore-influenced emo punkers, created a new poppy punk sound that had little to do with the Fat Wreck template, which had become standard. This combined with the ubiquity of that style on Warped Tour and in Hot Topics everywhere, being played by a steadily growing number of bands who were more generic and watered-down with every passing year, killed that old Fat Wreck template, rendered it passe. Soon it was replaced by the new style of emo, which certainly could fit under the descriptor of pop-punk, and would have at one time, but seemed to those who'd been following the style the whole time like something completely different. And for the most part, even the bands and fans playing and listening to pop-punk music didn't see what they were doing as pop-punk. Fat Wreck and Epitaph moved on to other styles, most of the Nofx-styled bands broke up, and it became a dead genre.

I first became aware that this was changing about a year and a half ago, when a friend of mine mentioned The Ergs to me. He told me that they were heavily influenced by the Descendents, but obviously listened to a lot of other styles of music as well, that they were making two-minute blasts of poppy punk that were actually good after so many years of no one doing such a thing, and that they had been working in obscurity for years before their recent surge in attention, during which they'd accumulated tons of EPs, splits, comp tracks, and even one or two full-length albums. There was a ton of stuff by them to track down, and with my interest piqued, I started working on doing just that. "Dorkrockcorkrod", their palindromically titled debut album, was the first thing I found, and it was every bit as awesome as my friend had made it sound. The Ergs did indeed crank out short, uptempo, catchy pop-punk tunes at a ridiculous clip--complete with a singing drummer! The album opened with a track called "First Song, Side One" that ripped through a verse and a bridge, then ended after less than 30 seconds, only to flow right into "A Very Pretty Song For A Very Special Lady", another awesome track that wasn't much more than two minutes in length itself. This trick of writing songs that flowed into each other was repeated several times on the album, and always worked quite well, as with "Most Violent Rap Group," which bridged into "Pray For Rain", then using a Henry Rollins spoken word sample to plow headlong into "Saturday Night Crap-O-Rama". "Pray For Rain"'s chorus is one of the best on the album, with an awesome half-speed melody set to the lyrics "And I could write you the perfect song, and you could sing along."

The words are never all that deeply nuanced, but they work well with the music and express feelings, typically about unrequited love and/or failed relationships, that a lot of people can relate to. In fact, "First Song, Side One" does a perfect job of summing up the basics of the situation that inspires most of The Ergs' lyrics: "I'm in love, I'm in trouble. Hearing things, seeing double. And I know that I promised myself I wouldn't act this way, but you know me. I'm talking in my sleep again, and she's the one to blame." That's the entire song, and it includes all of the main factors of such situations, the kind all of us have been through at one point or another. But there's still plenty more to say about them, as the lyric sheet makes obvious. Some particular gems from the rest of "Dorkrockcorkrod": "I love you more than I could say--probably more than you'd ever wanna hear, anyway. I'm sure you get that an awful lot." (From "A Very Pretty Song...") "I would bet my life that you're never gonna call me. I would bet my life that I'm gonna end up being lonely." (From "Most Violent Rap Group") "I still dial your number in my head, but you won't pick up the phone." (From "Running Jumping Standing Still") "Sugarcoat the truth, baby, and tell me that you love me again, because I couldn't bear to hear that I'm just another one of your friends." (From "Everything Falls Apart and More") None of this is life-changing poetry or anything, but even at its most trite and simplistic, it still expresses feelings everyone can relate to, and over the sorts of melodies it can be almost impossible not to sing along to. Like all the Descendents and Green Day records I loved in high school, this is the perfect music to listen to when you're feeling heartbroken. And isn't that what pop-punk was always supposed to be anyway?

Part II

Since getting "Dorkrockcorkrod", I've hunted down a whole bunch more Ergs records, and as my friend originally told me, they're all tremendously worthwhile. Even the split 7 inches, which typically feature only one original song and one cover, usually have such good originals on them that they're worth the price of admission all by themselves. And the covers are worth checking out too--they're never what you'd expect from a heavily Descendents-influenced band. Indeed, while The Ergs are notorious for covering the Descendents live, on record they prefer to pay tribute to their less obvious influences, covering such wide-ranging acts as The Beatles ("Not A Second Time"), The Gin Blossoms ("Hey Jealousy"), and the obscure Mike Watt-Paul Roessler duo Crimony ("Vampire Party"). The originals they've spread over their many EPs and splits are also worth hunting down, from the typical high-energy pop-punk (too many to name) to the slower, more introspective tunes like "Introducing Morrissey" or "Bridge", to out and out country jams like "Stinking Of Whiskey Blues". Even tossed-off song title references to other artists make clear their above average musical education, e.g. "Rod Argent", "Everything Falls Apart And More", "Aja", "Books About Miles Davis", and the title track to their second album, "Upstairs/Downstairs", which is dedicated to original Can vocalist Malcolm Mooney and references a notorious incident in which Mooney freaked out and sang the words "upstairs downstairs" over and over for two hours during a Can performance. Not bad for a pop-punk band from New Jersey!

But it was also easy for me to write off The Ergs as some sort of exception. I liked some of the bands they split 7 inches with, but the most typically pop-punk of them, The Modern Machines, didn't strike my fancy at all. Meanwhile, the one I liked the most, Lemuria, seemed more like emo or even indie rock to me. There were a bunch of other pop-punk bands starting to show up on the national landscape, but it took me a while to see any real merit in any of them. DC's Max Levine Ensemble played in Richmond a couple years ago, and I enjoyed them live, but the CD I picked up after their set was disappointing. Richmond's own Pink Razors were getting a lot of attention, but the first few sets I saw them play were total drunken free-for-alls, and I didn't get a very good sense of what they actually sounded like, or what the shouting might be about.

But eventually, all of these bands started winning me over. I picked up a Pink Razors 7 inch simply because a friend of mine had released it and I wanted to support the efforts of his label. But then when I got it home, I really liked it. This led me to reevaluate their prior studio efforts, at which point I realized that I liked them a lot better than I'd initially thought. And then, a couple months ago, The Max Levine Ensemble released a long-overdue new album, "OK Smartypants", on Plan-It-X Records, another label that's come to have a certain reputation. Another good friend of mine is a huge fan of the Ensemble, and has actually known them personally for years (it was he who booked the show I saw a couple years ago), so he got a copy of the album as soon as it was available, and immediately began swearing to me that it was brilliant. As I mentioned, I hadn't listened much to the CD I'd bought when I saw them, but I remembered them being awesome live, and my friend's enthusiasm was infectious, so I borrowed it from him. Sure enough, it rocked. I noticed it the second I put it in. It was hard to say exactly what they were doing musically; sure, it was pop-punk, but unlike Plan-It-X founders Operation Cliff Clavin, it didn't owe much to the legacy of Nofx or Bad Religion. Also unlike Operation Cliff Clavin, and indeed, most of their Plan-It-X successors, The Max Levine Ensemble didn't focus their lyrics on radical politics. According to my friend who knows them, this is because they grew up together and have been playing music since they were young teenagers. While singer/guitarist Spoonboy has become politicized over the years, which explains their connection with Plan-It-X, the other members aren't as into that sort of thing. So instead of writing about politics, Spoonboy uses Max Levine Ensemble as a platform to express his feelings about the politics of human interaction. And thank god for that--I'm way more interested in hearing songs about anything dealing with human interaction than I am in hearing yet another song about old-growth forests or animal liberation or any of the other radical political standbys that have never felt like they spoke much to my actual life.

Besides, the lyrics Spoonboy does write for Max Levine Ensemble are of such high quality that it would be a shame if they didn't exist in the world somewhere. And I want to say, before I go on, that I do love this album purely as a musical work, and I would love it even if the songs were about boycotting Pepsi or the evils of the prison system or whatever (and by the way, I may scoff at that kind of stuff when it shows up in lyrics, but it's not like I disagree with any of the political viewpoints I'm mentioning here. It's just that they're not the kinds of things I can focus much of my attention on. I hope that makes sense to everyone, and no one thinks I'm some apathetic douchebag). But I think this album is almost completely unique in its lyrical relevance in my own life. Spoonboy's a good bit younger than me, but it's obvious to me that he's struggling with a lot of the same issues in his personal life that plague me as I get older and start to feel less and less like I belong in a youth-oriented punk movement. And yet, I can't see anywhere else that I'd feel more comfortable. Every year, it's more of a struggle to feel like I fit in, and to find a connection with the kids around me who are supposed to be my peers. It's harder and harder to feel like I have friends, that I have a shot at making real connections, and receiving real love, both romantic and platonic (am I even using this word right?), from the people around me. And it's harder and harder to feel like there's any point in all the things I've spent my life on--because the world never seems to be effected in any real way.

All of these things are addressed somewhere on "OK Smartypants". "Firetooowwweerr" is a song that many may only remember for its jubilant chorus: "We could take out the bridge this summer, or we could climb up the firetower." It seems to be a song about seizing the day, making something good and real out of the time you have in life. But there's more to it than that, if you read the lyrics. The song's about Spoonboy making a new friend, but being afraid most of the time to call this person up. "I thought about you today, on the Metro terminal, and what we talked about. Seems like you're into hanging out, so we've at least got that much going." But then he starts to feel uncomfortable with the risk inherent in giving a new friend a call. Life is stressful enough, he thinks, without anything like that. "I thought about you today, through all the duck and cover, this condition that's got me screaming: 'ONE MORE TIME I'LL STAY IN BY MYSELF. I'LL HOLD ON, BUT THIS TIME I'LL HOLD OFF!'" I sure do know how that feels. But that's when the chorus comes up. He leads into it by saying, "But then I thought about you, and I thought: we could take out the bridge this summer. Or we could climb up the firetower." So what does that mean? A weighing of options, a desire for something more than another night spent sitting around alone because it poses less risk than trying to call someone to hang out. In the end, though, no matter how upbeat the chorus is, we don't know if Spoonboy really decided to call his friend. Maybe, maybe not. I hope so. I know I haven't had much fun on the nights I haven't been able to make myself make that call.

"You're Bitter" seems pretty self-explanatory from the title; generally, when punk songs are called something like "you're bitter", they're an attack on the bitterness of the person the song's addressed to, a repudiation of bitterness because "I still believe" or whatever punk/hardcore cliche you care to use. This isn't one of those songs, though. Not at all. "I know you're bitter. Well, are you worse off for those bleeding open eyes that see how sour of a place this can be? Well hush now, don't you try to say you're sorry. Could I blame you for it? You've earned it. It's your right." Who could have seen that coming? Not condemnation but an attempt at softening the blow, at pointing out that bitterness is understandable considering the world we all have to live in. "Nobody tells you how dangerous it is to believe that a world this fucked up could co-exist with the naivete they've got you holding on to. But they'll tell you you're crazy, and they've got PhDs. Come on sucker, who you gonna believe?" If anything, this song is a hand reached out from a fellow sufferer. Instead of a song that says "you shouldn't be as bitter as you are", this is a song that says "it's OK, I'm bitter too. Maybe knowing that will help you feel a little better, a little less alone."

"Franny And Hooey" is another interesting one--a song about a girl named Franny who left the punk rock subculture behind to pursue the American dream. But now she's back, because that whole thing didn't work out the way she expected it to. But in the last verse, you find that the song isn't really about Franny at all. "Franny came home tonight, and I think you ought to think on coming back too, because you were always one of the smarter ones. They took you off and stuck you to the side, where they could teach you convoluted explanations why, til they convinced you--what they got was what it was you were searching for. But it wasn't." I'm reminded of my own return to punk rock, back in early 2005 when I saw that moving on from punk rock had left me with nothing. I wanted a community to feel part of, to maybe give me something that could fill the hole inside that I was feeling in the wake of the worst breakup of my life. And even though it had been years since I went to punk shows in Richmond on any kind of regular basis, instead of finding rooms full of people who didn't know or care about who I was, I found a shitload of old friends who were overjoyed to see me again. Spoonboy's use of the word "home" in the lyrics to this song is particularly apt--of all the communities I've existed within over the years, punk rock is the only one that ever felt like more than just a hobby. It's always felt like home.

But of course, just because it's home doesn't mean it's perfect. It can be heartbreakingly easy for me to feel completely alone even in a crowd full of other kids with the same interests that I have. Lately things have been really rough for me, emotionally speaking, and I've had some conversations with friends of mine about how I'd contemplated suicide, and how I didn't necessarily feel at any given time like I mattered in my friends' lives, or that my presence in their lives was even worth it for them. I sometimes feel like this huge drain on everyone around me, because I'm lonely and I'm depressed and I'm desperate for any sort of connection. And after some of the conversations I've had with some of my friends, when they've sworn that they don't see me the way I fear they do, that they want me around even if I might feel like they don't, that I matter to them even if I can't always tell that I do, it's felt kind of strange to still feel so alone. I can know on a rational level that I'm not, that people care, but still feel so lost and empty that it's hard to make it through the day. And there's a song on "OK Smartypants" that's really hit home for me, more than any other track on there, because it tackles this exact sort of feeling, but from the opposite perspective--that of someone who cares about a friend that's feeling sad and disconnected, and who doesn't know what to say to make that friend feel better, but wishes that they did. The song's called "Aren't All Songs Political? Aren't All Songs Vaguely Self-Referential?", which is a really long title that doesn't seem to have all that much to do with the lyrics. But the lyrics are what really hits home for me. "You remembered how your friends said you knew how to have fun, so you went to their party and watched them all get drunk." I can relate to this one on multiple levels; first, because it's totally true that a lot of times, my attempts to have fun and party with my friends end with me feeling disconnected from what's going on, even as I'm right in the middle of it, and second, on a much more literal level--I really am always standing around sober watching them all get drunk. That's what comes of staying straight edge into your 30s--you end up being the last man standing. Which is OK, I don't regret not drinking or doing drugs, but sometimes it only serves to further emphasize my separation from everyone else I hang out with. "And the part of me that gets sad saw you feeling alone and got confused, at how you knew that you were loved but couldn't find someone to love you." The first time I read that line, it cut me to the core--it felt like something one of my best friends would say after talking to me about my loneliness and depression. And it reminded me of how, in my more rational moments, I really don't understand why I have so much trouble meeting and connecting with girls; why I'm still single over three years after my last breakup. At the end of the song, Spoonboy sings, "I would love to get to know you. Everybody seems to miss you," and it makes me wonder about all the times I don't bother trying to talk to kids at shows, friends of friends who see me around and might hear my name come up in stories, who'd have some context to know who I was and get to know me. I never give them the chance, and for me it's a protective instinct--I don't want them to not like me, and to feel like shit because I talked to someone new and they thought I was lame. But maybe some (or even a lot) of them would like to be my friend. Maybe there are kids out there who see me around, know who I am, and are afraid to talk to me for the same reasons I'm afraid to talk to them. The concept kind of blows my mind, and it kind of makes me feel bad, because even with it in my mind, I still probably won't talk to anyone.

So yeah, all of this is to say that "OK Smartypants" by The Max Levine Ensemble is already, two months into 2008, quite possibly the album of the year, and for a lot of different reasons. And it's a straight-up pop-punk record. Even in 2005, as I was listening to a whole lot of really great emo stuff that sounded a lot like pop-punk, I never would have figured that I'd be incredibly excited about a straight-up pop-punk album only three years later. And yet, that seems to be exactly what's happening. Which might say something about me, or about pop-punk. Maybe even both.

Part III

Last night I went to a show. I was really excited about it because both The Ergs and Max Levine Ensemble were playing. I was doing something before the show, and I ended up having to rush over there in order to get there on time. The show was happening in a clothing store, which was a quasi-legal space in which to have it, at best. They've been doing a lot of shows there lately, out of necessity more than anything else; Richmond's really hurting for a good punk rock venue right now (and don't worry, my friends and I are working on it). Apparently the cops have been hassling the store about the shows they do there, and they were worried about occupancy levels causing a problem at this show, so the word had gone out that only 75 people would be let into the show. Also, I'd gotten a call from my friend that knows the Max Levine Ensemble, to tell me that the show was starting on time, exactly at 8 o'clock, and that Max Levine would be playing first. So I sped over there, parked in the parking lot of a nearby grocery store who were notorious for towing people's cars, and walked really fast over to the show. I hoped that, since the show was starting on time, it would be over quickly enough that I could get back to my car before the store closed and they towed everybody. And it's probably good that I went ahead and took a chance instead of looking for 10 more minutes for another parking spot, because when I got to the door of the show, I was number 74 to get in. Two more minutes and I wouldn't have gotten in at all.

Max Levine Ensemble were setting up as I walked in, and they started playing less than 5 minutes later. Their set was every bit as good as I remembered it--the songs sounded great live, they played all of the songs I loved from the new album, and as I remembered from the last time, the drummer played loudly and aggressively, with a lot of intensity. He added a good bit to the songs just by playing them the way he did. After their set, I went to buy a CD, and told Spoonboy (who introduced himself to me--apparently his real name is David) how I'd been waiting for weeks to buy their album, and how glad I was that they'd played "Aren't All Songs Political? Aren't All Songs Vaguely Self-Referential?" I explained that I didn't know who he'd written it about, but whoever it was, they were going through a lot of the same things I'd been going through lately. I told him how I'd felt lately like I could disappear and it wouldn't make a difference in my friends' lives, how I'd say that to them and they'd swear it wasn't true, and how it was hard for me to believe that, so hearing a song written more from their point of view had shaken me up a bit, and really hit home. He laughed and told me that he'd written the song about himself, as if from the point of view of one part of himself talking to another part of himself. "So yeah," he said. "I feel you." And it was sort of awkward, considering that we'd never really met, but it was still really cool.

The rest of the show was really good too. Friendly Fire, a local band, played second, and while I wasn't incredibly stoked on them, they weren't bad at all, and definitely had the potential to get a lot better. I'm really interested to see how they are in another 6 months. After that, a band called Delay, from Ohio, played, and although I'd never heard of them, a lot of kids there seemed really stoked to see them. Once they started playing, I could see why--they too had a whole lot of energy live, and their music was really good too. They were another three-piece pop-punk band, like both Friendly Fire and Max Levine (and The Ergs too, come to think of it), and they were distinctive in that their guitarist and bassist were twin brothers who often sang in harmony with one another. After their set, a friend of mine asked one of them about how they pulled off the harmonies so well, and he quietly explained that he and his brother had been in church choir when they were younger, and that they'd learned a lot of their singing technique from that experience. I made sure to buy their CD before I left the show that night.

The Ergs played last, and although I was in the unfortunate position of standing right next to the bass amp, so that I couldn't hear the guitar amp at all most of the time, it was still a really fun set. I knew most of the songs really well, and it was a lot of fun singing along, especially since the rest of the crowd was going completely apeshit for pretty much the entire show. There had been a lot of kids outside on the sidewalk for most of the night, some of which I was sure hadn't been able to get in, and you could see a lot of faces pressed against the glass during The Ergs' set. Even though the room was only half full with 75 kids inside, all of them were crammed right on top of each other all around the band, and I'm sure towards the back of the room there was plenty of space. They closed the set with two Descendents covers, "Global Probing" and "Bikeage", and kids went so nuts for these that there was the danger at one point of the drumset being knocked over. However, the set ended without any major damage, and I bought two Ergs CDs and headed out. I'd spent a total of $35 on admission to the show and on CDs, which was stupid because now I only have $12 to get me through until I get my tax return (which could happen tomorrow or three weeks from now). At least I have plenty of food. Sigh.

Walking back to find my car, I saw tow trucks at work in the grocery store parking lot. It was only 10:30, meaning that the whole show had lasted only two and a half hours, and I knew that the grocery store was still open. However, the parking lot had been nearly full when I'd parked, and now it was nearly empty. So I resolved myself to the strong possibility that, by the time I got back to the area off to the side of the grocery store where I'd parked, that my car would be gone. I cursed myself inwardly for being so concerned about making it to the show that I'd cost myself what would no doubt be over $100 (that I didn't have) in towing fees. But then I walked around the corner and saw that only three cars were left in the side lot--and one of them was mine. I'd pulled it off after all. For once, I'd had a night in which everything went well.

The Ergs - First Song, Side One
The Max Levine Ensemble - Aren't All Songs Political? Aren't All Songs Vaguely Self-Referential?