Introduction: The Alt-Rock Chick Faces Certain Demons
You may have noticed that I’ve meticulously avoided writing reviews of albums in the continually multiplying genres that make up the general field of punk.
This has nothing to do with musical preferences. Looking for ways to rebel against my pseudo-hippie parents (even though we got along great and I loved most of the music they played), I chose punk as my mode of rebellion in my teens. I started with local acts like Rancid then discovered The Ramones and The Clash before moving on to more hardcore and post-hardcore acts like Refused and Fugazi. After a while, though, I checked out of the scene, in part because of my desire to experience more diversity, but mainly because of the fan base.
There are no greater snobs in the world than punk fans. Neither The Republican Party nor The Upper East Side can claim as many elitists as there are in punk. There’s a pattern of one sub-genre dismissing the other as poseurs, insistence on a dogmatic form of authenticity (an oxymoron if there ever was one), constant attacks on artists who attempt to deviate slightly from purism and an incredible amount of pseudo-intellectual fluff, particularly in the socio-political side of punk. Ironically, punk in many ways pushes conformity harder than the establishment they decry as evil.
Anyway, when I heard that The Evens had at last recorded their third album after a six-year gap, I snapped it up and immediately went into paralysis. By way of background, The Evens are a marriage (literally) of Amy Farina (whose drumming with The Warmers still knocks me on my ass) and former Fugazi force Ian MacKaye. “Oh, crap,” I thought. “If I write a review, I’ll get all these comments from punk snobs calling me a poseur and a sell-out. Do I really want to deal with that shit?”
Then I read a couple of reviews of the album. One was politely dismissive and somewhat condescending. The other was obviously written by a guy who was secretly hoping that a prestigious university would offer him the Sociology department chair, showing off his focal vocabulary collection while straddling the line between Marx and Max Weber in a lame attempt to establish the socio-political significance of this release in the context of historical materialism. Both had given the record a superficial listening and then, like the Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man, tried to show us, “Just how sharp I am.”
“Fucking snobs!” I exclaimed to the empty room. “I’m going to write this review and they can take their intellectual insecurity and shove it up their collective assholes with a barbed wire dildo!”
My first and lasting reaction of The Odds is this: I want to see the movie.
I haven’t heard music that is so perfectly suited for film since Phillip Glass did whatever he did last. This claim is all the more remarkable because most of the instrumental arrangements consist of only a baritone guitar and a drum kit, an approach that should meet the requirements of purists for minimalism. Despite the bare instrumentation, The Odds does not lack musical diversity; it is an album of many moods, from outrage to bemusement to detachment, dramatically enhanced by performances that define the word commitment. The poetry is strong and the vocals are clear and expressive.
But it’s the combination of arrangement and execution that make this recording so remarkable. You can hear the power of their approach most clearly in the instrumental, “Wonder Why,” which comes up about halfway through the record. This piece best demonstrates the sheer impact of Amy Farina’s intuitive-expressionistic style of drumming and Ian McKaye’s mastery of the baritone guitar. Beginning relatively gently on the higher range of the guitar, the intensity meter shoots through the roof when Amy comes in, and from there you can allow yourself to get lost in the waves of sound and tonal variations they create. It floors me that two people playing together can create richness and depth that is normally only achieved by full orchestras (and shit, I’d much rather listen to them than frigging Haydn). “Wonder Why” is a killer piece that really makes me want to . . . see the movie!
Back to the beginning, the album opens with one of Amy’s vocals, “King of Kings”. Immediately I loved the way this song filled my headphones with only two instruments and two people singing. The song has very strong movement and great variation in dynamics; the quieter section also features surprisingly strong harmonies. It’s followed by the angrier social commentary in “Wanted Criminals,” which adds only an intense siren-like sound to the spare background. The title should really be read, “Wanted: Criminals,” as the line repeated three times in the opening passage is “Everybody’s got their badges but they’ve got no one to apprehend.” It’s a powerful commentary on our fear-driven social system that condemns people to shit jobs created to maintain control over the masses and allow the rich to keep getting richer:
People need something to do; they’re getting angry,
So the bosses came up with a helluva plan:
Security job for each and every man . . . more alligators for their boots.
Keep them hungry.
And the following line, “What if every single person was a deputy?” has become far more chilling after Sandy Hook.
The mood shifts with “I Do Myself” with its neurotic-introspective theme of purposeless doing: “When I run out of things to do, I do myself.” The lower notes of the baritone guitar make for an appropriately sluggish feel, echoing the sluggish brain of the narrator. After a quiet introduction, “Warble Factor” reintroduces the speed and intensity of the opening songs, interspersed with drum roll attacks and enhanced by Amy’s intense lead vocal. “Sooner or Later” is notable for its lyrics on how we deal with the action-procrastination dynamic of human existence:
First comes illusion with its well-laid plans:
The strategy, the strategy, the strategy is so detailed.
Then comes denial with its outstretched hands . . .
After the aforementioned instrumental masterpiece, “Wonder Why,” we have the new anthem for any band that’s had to play gigs in an indifferent shithole of a venue, “Competing with the Till.” This song brought back countless memories of many nights spent in Seattle’s low-end piss-smell venues where the owners are committed to screwing every last nickel out the operation and screwing every employee as hard as they can until they just don’t give a shit. So, when the band starts setting up:
The outlet’s not working, the news is met with a shrug,
They say, “Yeah, just take a look around and find another plug . . .”
Ventilation is working: you tell by the overhead roar.
They don’t know how to turn it off, they’re just minding the store.
Reminding them that “our audience is your clientele” changes nada; to the owner “all the people coming to the show were just there to pay his rent.”
“Broken Finger” opens with some fancy fingerwork by Mr. McKaye (goddamn, can he play!) and a soulful vocal from Amy. To put it simply, this sucker kicks ass. “Architects Sleep” is something else entirely, a modern, angrier version of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” indicting the endlessly irresponsible leaders of this world who cover their tracks while thoughtlessly adding to human tragedy. Due to the lack of a digital booklet (harrumph!) I couldn’t quite make out all of the words, but the question it poses is very clear: why do we not feel more outrage about the incompetents who run this world of ours? Why do we let them get away with what in any truly moral context would be unthinkable?
What about the cost?
What about the lives that have been lost?
Can the architects hear the song of the dead?
The amazing “Timothy Wright” is a fascinating character study, an exposé of the irony that meaningless work is something we can’t afford to lose and a brilliant piece of poetry that can’t help but evoke empathy in anyone who has a conscience. The wordplay throughout creates a series of twists and turns as you follow the narrative, creating the same kind of dynamic that exists in Rimbaud’s “Le Dormeur du Val,” where the apparently sweetly sleeping young man turns out to be something else entirely. I will avoid any spoilers and let you experience the song for yourself; needless to say, it had quite an impact on me.
“This Other Thing” is another ass kicker, which forces me to point out how damned good The Evens are at creating rhythms that move you without eventually draining your excitement with repetitive dullness. “Let’s Get Well” features a disarming melody with more inventive wordplay, and “Kok” ends the album with a reprise of “King of Kings” played over a background of what sounds like the ritual of ice cream selection.
This reminded me that part of the six-year absence of The Evens has been attributed to the birth of a child. There’s absolutely no evidence from The Odds that parenting has softened either party’s musical skills or their profound disgust with the socio-political environment. As Frank Black and Violet Clark have already demonstrated on Let the People Speak, having a family doesn’t automatically make you lose interest in fucking or dampen the desire for a better world.
If I were the child of the two people who created The Odds, I’d be absolutely fucking proud of my parents.
Way, way back in the mid-70’s when the rock world began to split into sub-genres like hard rock, progressive rock, glam rock, heavy metal and the like, two common characteristics united the lot. The music was often seriously overproduced to amp up the drama and the songs tended to be on the long side. While some of the music of the era justified the complexity of production, a lot of it didn’t, and the endless drawn-out jams favored at the time had to be getting tiresome. Yes, rock had come a long way since Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent, but in doing so it had lost touch with its core. Similar to what happened to jazz when Bebop came to the fore, Rock was no longer dance music, which may explain why desperate, latent butt-shakers of the era turned to that abomination known as disco. While disco allowed people to strut their stuff on the dance floor, it adopted a style of slick production that would render it a lifeless and temporary fix at best for people who really wanted to let loose.
Then along came a bunch of guys who named themselves Ramones. Two-minute songs played at high-speed with high intensity. A no-frills just-drive-the-fucker-home rhythm section. A singer with limited range unlikely to try and wow the crowd with histrionics. No weird time signatures or complex chord patterns. Keep it simple, keep it moving, kick some ass. Get back to the primal urges, strip the lyrics of any traces of pomposity, add a playful sense of humor and create strong hooks so people can sing or shout along while they shake their energy-starved bodies.
While their arrival did not prevent Saturday Night Fever, the Ramones would re-establish the beachhead for jukebox-style rock ‘n’ roll that would form the structural basis of punk and its variations, and make it possible for other get-back-to-the basics styles like power pop. There was never any threat that the Ramones would develop beyond their core: it’s impossible to imagine a Ramones equivalent of Sgt. Pepper. What their long career proved was that basic rock ‘n’ roll has eternal life, because when it’s played right and tight, it taps the endless reserves of sexual energy within the human species.
I feel so damned good when I listen to the Ramones. I feel alive and happy. They make me move and they make me laugh. No matter what kind of bullshit I deal with during the workday, I can put on an album like Rocket to Russia and say, “That shit doesn’t matter. Let’s have some fun!”
“Cretin Hop” kicks things off big time. I love the silliness of the premise, and god damn I love the way these guys commit to hard-ass driving rock ‘n’ roll. The message that even cretins need to hop is sublimely ridiculous and strangely liberating: just go with it and have a good time! When they get to the call-out “1-2-3-4, cretins want to hop some more/4-5-6-7, all good cretins go to heaven,” shout along with them and I guarantee you that all your troubles will vanish into thin air. There is an ironic subtext here, but we’ll save that discussion for the end of the review . . . right now I want to rock!
If for some reason “Cretin Hop” doesn’t do it for you, “Rockaway Beach” certainly will. I’ve never been with anyone who doesn’t start involuntarily singing “rock, rock, Rockaway Beach” when it comes up on the stereo or the radio. The theme of “this scene is a drag, let’s get out of here” is a classic rock theme that the Ramones cleverly update with the lines, “The bus ride is too slow/They blast out the disco on the radio.” You don’t need any fills or frills with a song like this, it runs on its own energy and the Ramones were smart enough to just let that energy carry the music across the finish line. Two minutes of absolute bliss!
“Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” is as close to a ballad as you’ll get with these guys, and the detour away from standard chord structure with the dominant D to F# pattern is fairly complex for the Ramones. Although I tend to prefer the high-speed flights, Joey Ramone’s vocal really holds this song together with its intense commitment. You never have to wait long for the Ramones to ramp up the speed, though, and “Locket of Love” delivers with Joey’s fabulous sense of phrasing and straightforward but very effective harmonies sweetening a song about sweet revenge. “I Don’t Care” is more of a groove song with very simple lyrics expressing the classic reaction to rejection: denial. I love the way this song gets my ass moving in a circular grind: kudos to the rhythm section of Dee Dee and Tommy for warming me up for the inevitable afters.
If Eddie Cochran had been alive in 1977, he could have easily written “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” as the groove is “Summertime Blues” with a touch of methamphetamine. The lyrics in the single verse refer to previous rock fads (surf and a-go-go rock) that no longer scratch the itch the way this new manifestation of rock energy does with its rougher, rawer distorted sound. The words establish the link to the core and the sound establishes the new direction:
Well the kids are all hopped up and ready to go (they’re ready to go now)
They got their surfboards and they’re going to the Discotheque Au-Go-Go
But she just couldn’t stay
She had to break away
Well New York City really has it all
Sheena is a punk rocker . . .
The barrage of dysfunctional family images dominates the high-speed “We’re a Happy Family,” the only track on the album where I think they add too much to the arrangement with the chattering voices in the fade. It’s followed by the wild ride of “Teenage Lobotomy,” describing a world where brainlessness is guaranteed to get you the girls and likely to lead to a Ph.D; it’s a song designed for body slamming and the delicious release that comes from shouting “Lobotomy!” with Joey.
Next up is the best cover of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance?” I’ve ever heard; shit, it’s even better than the original, where the fire was diminished by the bossa nova fad of the time. The arrangement is simple, pedal to the metal rock ‘n’ roll and captures the kinetic excitement of letting your body shake and shimmer. When done right, dancing is really a form of shadow-fucking where eye contact communicates desire better than anything anyone can say in words, and the Ramones’ performance here makes me want to get up and shadow-fuck right now!
The pounding rhythm that drives of “I Wanna Be Well” come next, echoing the rhythm of a child’s tantrum in the chorus. I think they cover the theme of pursued obliviousness better in “I Wanna Be Sedated,” my favorite Ramones song. They shake up the instrumentation with less distortion and ride cymbal on “I Can’t Give You Anything,” resurrecting the classic rock theme of the boy who doesn’t have the cash reserves to make the girl happy. For me, those songs are just the warmups for “Ramona,” with its sexy groove and minimalistic harmonies supporting a first-class vocal performance from Joey Ramone. The Ramones then take on the novelty song, “Surfin’ Bird,” a hit for a group called The Trashmen who capitalized on the surf craze by putting “surfin'” in the title of a song that has nothing to do with surfing. Americans are so easily manipulated! It’s pure gibberish and the original was loaded with irritating sound effects and clichés, but I’ll be damned if the Ramones don’t make this sucker work.
Rocket to Russia ends with the upbeat number, “Why Is It Always This Way.” The harmonies, the happy-go-lucky rhythm and the grind-it-out guitar from Johnny Ramone give the impression that this is a “we’re having a good day” kind of rock song, but the lyrics tell a different story:
Last time I saw her alive
She was wavin’, wavin’ bye bye
She was contemplating suicide
Now she’s lying in a bottle of Formaldehyde
The Ramones loved to fuck with conventions and expectations, and their lyrics often contradict the feel of the music they’re playing. You can take these lyrics one of two ways: a.) There’s nothing we can do about this shit, so let’s rock or b.) We live in a society that is so anesthetized that human tragedy and waste no longer affect us. If there’s a dominant theme on Rocket to Russia, it’s brainlessness: cretins, lobotomies, drugs to ease the pain. In one sense, that’s not a bad thing when you’re playing core rock ‘n’ roll: you don’t want to think, you want to feel it inside and move your fanny! In another sense, the feel you get from the songs is often satiric and ironic, so it’s equally possible that the Ramones were exposing the punk scene for its cultural and artistic limitations in celebrating the moronic to excess. In a paper written for the UC Berkeley Undergraduate Journal, a gentleman by the name of Alex Taitague poses some fascinating hypotheses about the Ramones’ lyrics and punk in the context of culture.
My take is that punk is stripped-down music, not dumbed-down music, and that of all the genres in existence today, punk tends to be the most ironic, humorous and socially conscious. While the Ramones may not have the lyrical depth of Fugazi, $wingin’ Utter$ or The Evens, their songs definitely have more depth than meet the eye.
And even if they didn’t, it’s nice to give your brain a rest every now and then and just get your ass moving to kick ass rock ‘n’ roll, an art form that the Ramones mastered with surprising discipline and boundless energy. Rocket to Russia is the perfect cure for the spirit-draining effects of our increasingly regimented world.