Pop-punk resurrection: An odyssey in three parts
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?
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.
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?