Sometimes genres die quickly (electroclash), sometimes they remain with us forever (teenpop). Sometimes they stop developing and get kept alive indefinitely by loyal keepers of their flame and proud denizens of their subculture. What this mostly gets us is a bunch of records that all sound the same, but every now and then a jewel slips through the floodgates, some young band who’ve just discovered the secret of life for themselves and want to convey that delight to the rest of us through a form tailor-made for conveying delight. And when that happens it’s so so worth it.
White Lung: Paradise (Domino, 2016)
Punk is a genre of harsh edges, but this Vancouver band is so committed to hardness they’re all snarl all the time — Sleater-Kinney are sweet pop balladeers by comparison, Perfect Pussy bumbling amateurs. White Lung’s ferocious onslaught cuts through steel and makes your ears stiffen with alarm; indeed, this is their only available mode.
How, exactly, are we to distinguish this metallic, spiky, brutally fast hardcore punk album from its predecessor, 2014’s Deep Fantasy? How even to distinguish one song from another? Mish Barber-Way’s declamatory scream rings out, clearly and solemnly, above the fray, but said fray’s volume and horsepower subsume her lyrics. Each song slams and thrashes and pounds the beat into oblivion; each raises an indestructible wall of crackle and hiss and barbed wire and rotating blades and sizzling static in your face, all masquerading as guitar playing; each deploys a simple, powerful, mournful melody to lend the project an aura of tragedy, as if all that energy is being wasted swimming against the tide — the tide being sexism, oppression, and so forth. This album includes slightly nicer, more approachable songs (the airborne “Hungry”, the aching “Below”, both of which feature a cleaner, lighter, more echoey guitar sound than their norm), proving they have human feelings too; perhaps in compensation, the angry songs are tougher and crankier than ever, although none matches the previous album’s “Down It Goes” or “Face Down.” Yet these are marginal distinctions. Bang boom pow remains modus operandi.
Their great virtue is speed: song after song slams by at a breakneck tempo that compresses the melodies and keeps the singer on her toes. Their weakness is that their speed blurs the songs too closely together and leaves the album indistinct, tapping into a universal groundswell of rage that seems to preclude specificity. This can be cathartic too.
Parquet Courts: Human Performance (Rough Trade, 2016)
Every time Parquet Courts release a new album I rant and rave and apply hyperbole, and every time the music gradually turns slightly flatter than we admirers of our finest cowboy punks prefer. But this album is a glorious apotheosis no matter how flat their beat, simultaneously respecting and disrespecting their elders more than ever.
The paradox at the heart of the band’s music concerns the march of history. Given how much the punk form has stagnated, how limited the options are for Brooklyn bohemians playing edgy, noisy songs on electric guitars, anybody who remains true to the genre is a traditionalist by definition, doubly so any group of obsessive rock nerds who take care to work into their music absurdly specific, arcane references to classic alternative bands. The guitar breakdown in “One Man No City” recalls the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” to the point of parody, Andrew Savage has developed such a perfect Thurston Moore impression that one thinks the man himself is droning away on “Dust,” and so on — I’m convinced their jams and solos and explosions of static include dozens of citations, most of which go straight over my head. But there’s something irresistibly sly about the way they ransack their history, reminiscent of the postmodern tricksters who achieve similar effects via sampling. You can just hear the delight in Savage’s voice while intoning “Dust,” how tickled they must have been when they devised the jangly turnabout riff in “Captive of the Sun.” Whether this makes them progressive or conservative in the end, their guitar sound — a warm, chunky clang that sends thin, squeaky riffs ricocheting against chord blocks whose endless chug keeps driving the music long past the point where a normal punk would have thrown the guitar down and stormed off the stage — is their own.
Loose, expansive, generous and funny, they care deeply about genre the way most punks care deeply about alienation, and they’ll continue to electrify their chosen form up until the day they start recycling their own material. Credo: “Sometimes my thoughts are infrequent explosions/sometimes I drop definitions from my words/sometimes my speech recalls moments of violence/sometimes I can’t be repeated can’t be paraphrased.”
Scandal: Yellow (Epic Records Japan, 2016)
Cultural exchange works in mysteriously perverse ways: if American emo kids can geek out over anime comics and cartoons, why shouldn’t the Japanese discover Good Charlotte and My Chemical Romance? And why shouldn’t this all-girl band from Osaka make a pop-punk album at least as hard and hooky and irresistible as anything an English-language band has done in the style?
Maybe I’m just glad I can’t understand the words, usually the weak point when men and women alike put on too much makeup, crank their guitars up to eleven, and scream about romantic dysfunction, about wearing a bleeding heart on the sleeve. But to my ears the secret is simpler: as foreign fans of pop-punk who love the genre for its guitar whomp and its tuneful clarity without necessarily participating in the concomitant subculture, they’re not alienated, or anxious, or in touch with any sort of negative emotion whatsoever. They’re quite delighted with themselves, and they’ve streamlined their pop-punk variant for maximum sleekness and punch and cheer. They devise a whole bunch of big, happy, crunchy rock riffs, drum hard and heavy to make sure each one gets drilled into your skull and never leaves, add a few dollops of teenpop sweetness over here, a little synthesizer coloring over there, and knock the resulting formula out of the park. They sing hardcore rants and thrash-rock bangers and tender ballads, each with more juice than the next. They sing a song called “Happy Birthday.” They sing a song called “Love Me Do”. They sing a song whose title translates to “Pizza Party Tonight.” They sing “Stamp!” — the lead single — catchiest of all these magnificent slices of power hookery. They sing like kids on their first rollercoaster ride.
Every now and then their enthusiasm gets silly, but this is an ebullient, credible rendition of pop’s eternal adolescent thrill. Figurative adolescence, of course — having formed ten years ago just out of high school, by now these women are old pros who’ve mastered their craft. You don’t make an album like this by accident.
Modern Baseball: Holy Ghost (Run for Cover, 2016)
This Philadelphia emo/punk band makes loud, messy, tuneful feelings-rock, but because they’re responsible adults they never get bogged down in adolescent self-pity. Their two lead vocalists split the album down the middle: first Jake Ewald sings six songs, then Brendan Lukens gets five. Together, they form a thoughtful, worried, hyperarticulate two-headed frontman.
As emo albums go, this one is both friendly and hummable. Ewald and Lukens can write ragged or lilting or fierce or dejected riffs on command, rip them up with suitably serrated backup chords, and, that’s right, carry a tune, albeit in flat adenoidal yowls whose occasional slip into whiner territory conveys humble human limitation. These are ordinary guys, after all, at least according to their personas on record, and as ordinary guys, their forlorn confessional songs are a lot kinder and saner than most. Nevertheless, they do inject quite a bit of rousing, valiant pathos into material that doesn’t warrant such an approach, especially when they get hung up on the tragic futility of the touring lifestyle. Most emo screamers vent romantic anxiety with more self-regarding self-loathing than any listener who doesn’t identify completely can stand; these guys subtract the content while maintaining the emotional impulse, their mood equally pained and sensitive for no good reason other than they regard their own lives as sweeping, anthemic, and likely doomed heroic sagas, as their stylistic conventions have taught them to do. Their melodies tend grand, their mood bittersweet, the romanticism accentuated by their nasal, amateurish vocal inflections, which you can bet get romanticized too. Even the riff on “Wedding Singer” sounds unbearably sincere.
Those with the need to bang their heads and feel some good old sentimental release will find this album refreshing. I’m just wondering how the punk spirit wound up here.