The theme of this installment is bands who had multiple releases this year. Within: Obits, Smoking Popes, Motion City Soundtrack, and Green Day.
Obits – “Let Me Dream If I Want To” b/w “The City Is Dead” / “Refund” b/w “Suez Canal”
May 15th / Oct. 15th, Sub Pop / La Castanya
Rick Froberg’s a busy guy. On top of a career as a visual artist and fronting his Brooklyn-based band Obits, who released their sophomore album Moody, Standard and Poor in March 2011 and spent a chunk of 2012 touring Europe, the former San Diego resident has also managed several reunion tours this year with Hot Snakes, his most recent band with frequent collaborator John Reis (the two are also formerly of Pitchfork and Drive Like Jehu). In between all this, Obits managed to squeeze out two singles this year, their first recordings with former Girls Against Boys drummer Alexis Fleisig (replacing Scott Gursky, who left in May ’11).
The first, released through Sub Pop, is a pair of cover songs originally by relatively obscure punk acts of the late ’70s/early ’80s. Obits’ rendition of “Let Me Dream If I Want To”—originally by mid-’70s CBGB house band Mink DeVille—doesn’t stray much from the original with the exception of Froberg’s more urgent, gritty vocals, but it’s a great example of everything the band does best: clean, interlocking guitars and an open sound that creates a lot of sonic space, giving the song room to breathe. Their version of Belgian group The Kids’ “The City Is Dead” is a complete 180° from the original revved-up punk number. Obits slow the song down to a stroll, opening it up to bring out Greg Simpson’s bass and Fleisig’s drums. Froberg and former Edsel frontman Sohrab Habibion’s guitars work their way in slowly and building to a mid-track crescendo, only to drop out again and re-emerge toward the end.
The band’s second single of the year arrived via the Barcelona-based La Castanya label to coincide with their tour of Spain, and consists of two Obits originals. “Refund” is a hi-tempo punk number with a fast guitar lead and Froberg yelling out raspy vocals. It’s one of the shortest songs in their canon at just over 2 minutes, and recalls more of Hot Snakes (or even The Marked Men’s “Fix My Brain“) than it does of Obits’ past work. “Suez Canal” is a slower number with Habibion taking the lead vocals, and has musically more in common with the prior single and album. Taken together these singles show the band continuing to hone their craft since the last album, and unafraid to mix things up now and then. Here’s hoping this trend continues on any forthcoming records. 4/5 on both.
Smoking Popes – Complete Control Recording Sessions / Born to Quit (reissue)
May 22nd / Oct. 23rd, Side One Dummy Records
Smoking Popes’ entry in Side One Dummy’s Complete Control live-in-the-studio series includes 3 new tracks and 2 new recordings of past favorites. Opener “Let’s Call It Love” is classic Popes, a pop-punk love song showcasing Josh Caterer’s trademark crooning vocals (drummer Neil Hennessy, also of The Lawrence Arms, delivers some great drumming too). “Hey Renée” is the other side of the same coin, with the lyrical perspective switching to a lovelorn stance and an acoustic guitar taking lead. “Grab Your Heart and Run” and “Writing a Letter” are straightforward renditions of songs from the band’s back catalog (2008’s Stay Down and 1993’s 2, respectively). The closing track is a cover of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables that starts off acoustic and builds to full-band bombast about halfway through. It’s not the first time the band has covered a showtune, Josh Caterer’s love of classic musicals being well-known (see their cover of “Pure Imagination” on 1997’s Destination Failure, or the majority of their covers album The Party’s Over). While the first two tracks are great, the second two aren’t any different from previous studio & live renditions and the cover song isn’t all that memorable. Still, the Smoking Popes have yet to deliver a dud, and if you’re not already familiar with “Grab Your Heart and Run” or “Writing a Letter” then this EP is a solid pick. 4/5
The other Popes release this year was a reissue of 1994’s Born to Quit, given the remaster treatment, new artwork, and two bonus tracks. Widely considered the band’s quintessential album, this was the record that got them signed to Capitol and features their signature tune, “Need You Around”, which cracked the upper half of the Modern Rock chart after being included in the Clueless soundtrack. Morrissey himself called Born to Quit “extraordinary, the most lovable thing I’d heard in years.” In addition to “Need You Around”, it contains several other songs that became staples for the band and would be essential on a best-of: “Rubella”, “Gotta Know Right Now”, and “Mrs. You and Me”. All this in under half an hour.
The reissue booklet features comments by Josh Caterer on each track as well as notes of reflection by the band’s then-manager (and Metro custodian) Joe Shanahan, comedian Kyle Kinane, and Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba (an 18 year-old Skiba worked in the mailroom of Johann’s Face Records, the Chicago indie label that originally released Born to Quit; 6 years later, Popes drummer Mike Felumlee would join Alkaline Trio). The bonus tracks are a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” from the “Need You Around” single and the previously-unreleased “Blanket in the Park”, a duet with the band’s friend Suton Doeringsfeld providing the female vocals. Compared to other pop-punk fare both of the ’90s and today, Born to Quit still sounds unique and fresh. 5/5
Motion City Soundtrack – Go / Making Moves
Jun. 12th / Nov. 6th, Epitaph Records / Mad Dragon Records
“Mature” isn’t usually a word that bodes well in a review. Generally it means a band has lost its original spark in favor of something market-friendly, or it can simply be a cop-out when a reviewer’s run out of adjectives. In the case of MCS’ fifth album, the term seems to fit. 2010’s My Dinosaur Life was something of a band reboot, perfectly balancing the frenetic energy of their first two records with the pop leanings of their third. Go sounds like that same band mellowed a bit, keeping the melodies and propulsion but smoothing some of the edges off their sound and honing their pop sensibilities even further, resulting in an album that feels a bit more laid-back and layered than their previous work. There’s no “Disappear” here, no “@!#?@!“; The pogoing-est numbers are “Circuits and Wires”, “The Coma Kid”, and “The Worst Is Yet to Come”, all of which rank with the most rocking numbers of past albums. Elsewhere Go is more subdued and melancholy, such as on “Son of a Gun”, “Everyone Will Die”, and “Boxelder”. The singles “True Romance” and “Timelines” find a good balance between dynamics, with the band building from restraint into big, hooky choruses. My one complaint is that closer “Floating Down the River” doesn’t measure up to to Dinosaur‘s fantastic album-ender “The Weakends”. 4/5
Making Moves is the final entry in an MCS-curated series published by Drexel University’s Mad Dragon Records and MCS’s Boombox Generation label. The band selected 5 unsigned acts to contribute EPs to the Making Moves series, with MCS’s own 3-track installment serving as the finale. “Severance” is in the vein of Go, a mature pop song that starts out slow and minimal, building to a full-band rocker by the latter half. “Major Leagues” is the kind of uptempo emo-pop the band built its fanbase on, and wouldn’t sound out of place on I Am the Movie. A cover of Rilo Kiley’s “Pictures of Success” closes out the EP, surprisingly stripping the song down even further from the original by ditching the guitars, drums, and horns and reducing the arrangement to little more than singer Justin Pierre and a piano. It makes the piece just that much more melancholy, proving that the band can succeed even when stepping out of their comfort zone. 3/5
Green Day – ¡Uno! / ¡Dos! / ¡Tré!
Sept. 24th / Nov. 9th / Dec. 7th, Reprise Records
“This is the best music we’ve ever written, and the songs just keep coming. Instead of making one album, we are making a three album trilogy.”
—Green Day press release from April 2012
Hubris, anyone? Really, with a statement like this, you knew there was no way the end product would live up to it. Granted, Green Day managed an unexpected second coming in the 2000s with the huge success of American Idiot, but now with 2 rock operas and a Broadway musical under their belts they’ve been given an air of importance that just doesn’t match up to the quality of their output. A great deal of this aggrandizing has come from the press, but the band—especially Billie Joe Armstrong, with his appearances in the musical, role on The Voice, and other headline-making antics—have certainly fed into it, and in the process they’ve made themselves into characters, moreso than they ever were in the past. Just look at the covers for these 3 albums. Considering all this masturbatory self-import, Armstrong’s onstage meltdown in September and subsequent entry into rehab seem almost karmic.
When this trilogy was announced, my first thought ran to Sandinista!, The Clash’s 1980 triple LP. Like Green Day, The Clash felt everything they were recording at the time was the best stuff they’d ever written, and like Green Day they were trying to follow up something big (the double-LP London Calling in The Clash’s case). So they left almost nothing out and ended up with a 36-track album. Of course The Clash were only on their fourth record, and at a stage of wild genre exploration, whereas for Green Day these are albums 9–11 and seem to be a bit back-to-basics after the whole rock opera business. And while Sandinista! is regarded as a great album, in my opinion it contains a great album and would’ve benefited from an editor. Ditto for Green Day: They could’ve used someone in the room who wasn’t a yes-man; someone to say “Guys, you’re 25 years into your career, you’ve had 6 top 10 albums and sold over 70 million records. No one really believes that these 37 songs you wrote in the last 2 months are really the best 37 songs you’ve ever written. Why don’t you take a week off, sober up, then we’ll get back together and talk about whittling this thing down.”
But they didn’t, and now we’ve got 3 albums in 3 months by a band who can’t tour ’cause their frontman’s in rehab. Anyway, here’s a breakdown on the albums:
¡Uno! is the return-to-form record, loaded with the kind of loud, fast guitar+bass+drums pop-punk that was the band’s stock-in-trade back in the ’90s. Many of its tracks would sound quite comfortable on Insomniac (’95) or Nimrod (’97). Lyrically it ditches the sociopolitical commentary of American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown in favor of love songs, rants against the music industry, and snotty anti-authority anthems. The standout is “Let Yourself Go”, which is not only the fastest song on the record but also very sing-alongable and laced with plenty of f-bombs that should guarantee it a spot in the band’s setlist for years. There are missteps, though: “Carpe Diem” is a midtempo number with a lame chorus that basically sounds like any number of songs on their last 2 albums. “Kill the DJ” is a detour into dance-rock a la Franz Ferdinand that sounds tired and uninspired. And the lead single “Oh Love”, though anthemic, has pretty weak verses (and a rock star-excess video in which the band cavorts with mostly-naked models). Still, there’s plenty of enjoyable material on this album, and if you’ve missed the way Green Day sounded back in the late ’90s then this is definitely the pick for you out of the three. 3/5
¡Dos! aims to be a “garage rock” record, and it sort of is, in that it sounds like Green Day trying to play those early-2000s “garage” bands. You know: The Vines, The Hives, The Strokes, etc. Might as well call this “The Green Days”. Oddly, this is something the band already did in 2008 via their side project Foxboro Hot Tubs’ album Stop Drop and Roll!!!, though they’re doing it a bit better on ¡Dos! The album starts off pretty weak, with the short ballad “See You Tonight” followed by the idiotic “Fuck Time”, but it picks up a bit from there: “Stop When the Red Lights Flash” sounds like Insomniac-era Green Day, and the Strokes-esque “Lazy Bones” is perhaps the most rollicking number (though it loses some freshness by being too similar to American Idiot b-side “Favorite Son”). “Stray Heart” is bouncy and a lot of fun, though it rips its bassline straight from Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” (having spent 3 years working for a company who used “Lust for Life” in all their ads, I have a conditioned response to it). “Ashley” rips with the best stuff on ¡Uno! But the rest of the album is either so-so (the midtempo “Wild One” goes nowhere, the lyrics of “Makeout Party” are lame & sound weird coming from a 40 year old) or just bad: “Nightlife” is a lame attempt at rap-rock even by lame rap-rock standards, and features some unknown female MC called Lady Cobra; curiously, it’s preceded by a song called “Lady Cobra” on which the lady does not feature. And the idea of Green Day doing a tribute ballad to Amy Winehouse (closer “Amy”) just doesn’t compute for me. 2/5
And then there’s ¡Tré!, alternately marketed as “epic” and “a mixed bag”. It just came out today, so I’m writing this as I give it a first listen. “Brutal Love” certainly fits the “epic” description, in that it features piano, horns, and strings and sounds like something from one of their 2 rock operas (an Alternative Press review calls it a knock-off of Sam Cooke’s 1962 hit “Bring It On Home to Me“, and that certainly seems to fit). “Missing You” is a simpler pop-punk love song with a dash of The Replacements and, like the the best bits of the previous two records, is reminiscent of Green Day’s late-’90s work. Much of the rest seems to be midtempo pop-rock stuff: “8th Avenue Serenade”, “Sex, Drugs & Violence”, “A Little Boy Named Train”, “Amanda”, and “Walk Away” all fit this bill. There are 2 boring ballads: “Drama Queen” and “The Forgotten”, the latter closing out the album and featured on the soundtrack of the latest Twilight movie, which seems to indicate the audience this record is aiming for. There are oddball tracks, though they’re certainly not as bad as those on the prior records. The 6½-minute multi-suite “Dirty Rotten Bastards” curiously begins by yanking both the torreador song from Carmen and “The Marines’ Hymn” and, in true Green Day fashion, setting them to snotty “yah-nah-nah”s, with later sections devoted to some pretty ripping guitar & bass solos and old standby punk lyrics about “California burning down”. “99 Revolutions” is about the Occupy movement, which might have been pertinent a year ago but is too little too late now. “X-Kid” is a worthy effort with a rousing intro and, as an A.V. Club review notes, somehow morphs into the sound of 1992’s Kerplunk near the end. Having given it a spin, ¡Tré! feels like the b-sides from its two predecessors with a couple of 21st Century Breakdown leftovers thrown in. 2/5
So there you have it: Green Day’s big trilogy. Taken together, the whole thing is uneven and overextended. There are so many musical references scattered throughout that it’s hard to figure which are tributes, homages, or outright ripoffs. And when they aren’t referencing other acts, Green Day seem to be referencing their own past, which makes for some of the trilogy’s best tracks but also feels like the slightly fuzzy photocopy of pre-American Idiot Green Day: just not as sharp as the original. As I said in the intro, what seems to have been missing here was a good editor. Cherry-picking the best of these 37 songs could have yielded a very solid album, with plenty of decent stuff left over for b-sides and the throwaway stuff (“Kill the DJ”, “Nightlife”, “The Forgotten”) left on the cutting room floor. Instead some of the weaker material has ended up as singles, and the band has imploded (at least for now) from the stress of the whole endeavor. It all seems a bit silly, considering that the initial concept of the trilogy amounted to “fuck it, we’re doing what we want”, but with the artificial icon status the band has been bestowed by the media comes the expectation that they’re supposed to continuously save rock & roll or somesuch nonsense. There are other bands I could imagine pulling off a project like this without all the hype and pretension, but Green Day have been elevated—and elevated themselves—to a point where they just can’t do anything without some inflated sense of cultural import being attached to it, and that does them a disservice.