The Menzingers – After the Party

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It’s the little things my mind commits
to etch behind my eyelids /
Like getting stoned when we wake up,
coffee grounds, and coffee cups /
Your silhouette in high top sneakers
and hardcore from laptop speakers /
The classics to the more obscure,
from Minor Threat to your old roommate’s band /
Like a kaleidoscope in vibrant hues,
I navigate around your tattoos
Said you got that one on a whim when you were breaking up with him /
And that Matryoshka Russian doll
that lines your shelf from big to small /
What a way to start anew,
to shed your skin, and find the old you

If I weren’t rabidly jealous of every single facet of their lives, I would almost feel bad for a band like The Menzingers. To have released a record so universally beloved and celebrated like 2012’s On the Impossible Past that it actually haunts you is a fascinating dilemma to be in. To know you’re great, but wonder if you’ll ever again be that great. Now, I’d like to use these next few sentences to defend their 2014 followup Rented World, but that would be disingenuous. I was just as disappointed as most with its straightforward, electric rock approach. Apart from a few gems, it felt forced, overly structured, and sometimes, even insincere. From what I can glean, its lackluster effect had everything to do with how it was written, or more specifically, how it wasn’t written. Most of On the Impossible Past’s undeniable charm was inextricable from its acoustic roots, and it was immediately evident, if only by juxtaposition, that Rented World was written as a band on electric setups meant for big rooms. Which is fine. It just couldn’t help but lack the intimacy that made On the Impossible Past so special. I think it’s safe to say that most of us were anxious to see what direction The Menzingers were gonna lean for LP5. And then fucking “Lookers” dropped.

If there’s a “perfect” Menzingers song, it’s “Lookers,” and luckily for us, it serves as a blueprint for After the Party as a whole. It’s catchy, nostalgic, rollicking, lyrically brilliant, fun, sweet (in the “Aw, you’re so sweet” way), and most importantly, it reclaims the intimacy Rented World lacked. The “sha-la-la-la” that opens the chorus clues us into the Americana style The Menzingers have tapped into on this record (think Eastern seaboard Americana a la Springsteen or The Gaslight Anthem, not the “down south” kind). As for its composition, After the Party is a delectable blend of both On the Impossible Past and Rented World’s approaches. While “Tellin’ Lies” and “House on Fire” could find a comfortable home on Rented World, “Lookers” and the title track are out and out On the Impossible Past fare.

Lyrically, After the Party isn’t that surprising. And by that, I mean if you’re looking for ingeniously nostalgic and self-deprecating lyrics about lost loves and the disillusionment your late 20s brings (“Where we gonna go now that our 20s are over?”), The Menzingers have come through yet again. Again, “Lookers” is probably our best example with its recurring theme reminding us of the good old days “when we were both lookers,” but it’s verses like this from the could-be hit “Midwestern States” that stand out to me: “Been having problems with our landlord / He said he’s taking us both to court / She got her hours slashed / and my unemployment’s drying up fast / We both got worthless diplomas from worthless universities / Two bachelors in worthless studies / But at least it made our parents happy / and cost a whole lot of money.” I know, right? And while I normally lean more towards Greg Barnett’s songs, Tom May’s offerings on After the Party are the strongest songs he’s ever written (other than “Nice Things,” of course). So strong, in fact, that I think if I were introducing someone to The Menzingers, I would use After the Party even though I think On the Impossible Past is still the be-all Menzingers record.

So there we have it. My hometown heroes are back at the top of their game. After Rented World’s reception, it’s refreshing and almost relieving to see the unanimous love this record is getting. It’s schmaltzy to say, but I feel lucky to have The Menzingers, if for no other reason than to hear a band articulate in song just how brutal it is to drive from Asbury Park, NJ back to Philly after a show. Thanks for that, fellas.

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Top 10 2016

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2016 was a bad year for pretty much everything besides music, and frankly, I don’t think 2017 is going to be much better, so in music we must trust. Since President-Elect Butthole’s win, there’s been a lot of “Make Punk Great Again” horseshit going around. I get it, it’s been 8 years since the “Rock Against Bush” days when punk had a major adversary, but Propagandhi had studio time booked for 2017 before the election took place, so that theory is bunk. Besides, both NOFX and Against Me! put out excellent records in 2016, so bite me. 2017 is already looking up for me with new AFI and Menzingers records coming within the next month. I’m also looking forward to a new Manchester Orchestra LP, whatever Converge is teasing, that Brand New record maybewhoknows, a new ’68, The Bronx fucking 5, Crime In Stereo’s impending return, Dead To Me’s American Son of Cholo now that Jack Dalrymple has rejoined, Fear Before’s return, that He Is Legend record I paid for on Kickstarter like 2 years ago, and The Smith Street Band’s 4th LP. I’d also do awful things for The Blood Brothers to get back together (I mean, if the fucking Misfits can reunite…) and Horse the Band to make a record. Oh, and by the way, fuck that buttrock Thrice reunion record 2016 gave us. Okay, I’m done. Onward and upward. Here’s what affected me most last year.


10. Culture Abuse – Peach

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Wish your life was a beautiful life / Well, dream on

This band has an uncanny ability to excite me. Culture Abuse’s Spray Paint the Dog 7” was only two songs and was still #10 on last year’s list. Peach is the band’s debut LP and finds them slightly more subdued. Well, “subdued” may be the wrong word. Let’s go with “streamlined.” With Peach, the Culture boys have eschewed their more hardcore roots and adopted a catchier, beachier garage rock sound that really, really works for them. Not to mention that Peach is a how-to guide for keeping a positive mental attitude, opening with the spoken phrase, “Let there be peace on Earth. Let love reign supreme.” Culture Abuse is about letting go, community, music, friends, and fun. How much more punk can you get?


9. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

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You have no right to be depressed / You haven’t tried hard enough to like it

Of all the records to make my list this year, this one is by far the most unexpected. I was uncharacteristically late to the game with Car Seat Headrest. Teens of Denial was released in May, but I didn’t take the dive until late November. Idiot. This record is what all indie rock should aspire to. It’s denser than lead with music (71 minutes over only 12 tracks), lyrically goddamn genius, grungy, varied, yet entirely accessible from all angles. For fans of: guitars and drugs.


8. John K. Samson – Winter Wheat

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Know I am with you / Know I forgive you / Know I am proud of the steps that you’ve made / Know it will never be easy or simple / Know I will dig in my claws when you stray

When the news broke last year that The Weakerthans were, in fact, kaput, a symphony of breaking hearts echoed throughout the punk scene. Sure, maybe they weren’t a punk band per se, but they occupied this odd, special little space in the scene that may never be filled. The Weakerthans were for dreary afternoons, for waxing lyrically at twilight, and for really, really loving your cat. Their records were the closest a listening experience could be to reading a rich piece of literature. Luckily, Samson saw fit to give us Winter Wheat, his second solo offering, which coincidentally features accompaniment by much of The Weakerthans rhythm section, so it’s kinda like a new Weakerthans record. If your interest in music doesn’t rely heavily on lyrical content, Samson may be unfortunately lost on you, as many of his songs read like fictional prose. You may, however, still be able to tap into the calming peace this record can impart. It’s like an antidepressant, like lying on your back in the grass watching the clouds. Here’s a taste of his wholesome obsession with academia:


7. Camp Cope

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I wanna do whatever you wanna do / I wanna make fun of cops with you

It’s incredibly hard to believe that this is Camp Cope’s debut release. Even at only 8 tracks, this record is an emotional powerhouse of the highest degree. What started in Melbourne as a solo endeavor by vocalist/lyricist/guitarist Georgia Maq transformed into something truly special when she teamed up with drummer Sarah Thompson and bassist Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich (the bass on this thing is incredible, by the way). Camp Cope is now one of my go-to recommendations when it comes to punk’s new wave of subdued, indie-tinged, late-afternoon tones.


6. Jeff Rosenstock – Worry.

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It’s not like the love that they showed us on TV / It’s a home that can burn / It’s a limb to freeze / It’s worry / Love is worry / Yeah

First off, it’s batshit that Jeff Rosenstock has landed at #6 on my list 2 years in a row…both times for full-length LPs. What’s even more batshit is that Worry. is even better than We Cool? which, frankly, I didn’t expect. This thing is getting extremely high praise everywhere (it’s even been called “the Abbey Road of punk”), and for good reason. Worry. is 17 songs in 38 minutes that touch on nearly every punk subgenre and societal woe you could come up with. Take, for example, the dancy, gang-vocal-friendly, pop-punk “Festival Song,” which brutally rails against music festival culture and the damage it’s doing to real, audible art: “Take a long look at the billboards that smother the air ‘til you can’t ignore ‘em / and glamorize department store crust-punk-chic ‘cause Satan’s trending up and it’s Fashion Week  / but this is not a movement, it’s just careful entertainment for an easy demographic in our sweatshop denim jackets / and we’ll wonder, “What just happened?!” when the world becomes Manhattan / where the banks steal the apartments just to render them abandoned.” I can confidently say that including all of his work under the moniker of Bomb the Music Industry!, this is Rosenstock’s best work. If you haven’t started, start here.


5. AJJ – The Bible 2

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No more shame / No more fear / No more dread

It’s relieving to finally have a favorite AJJ (formerly Andrew Jackson Jihad) record. 2014’s Christmas Island came in at #11 that year for its foray into a more pop-driven, fuzz-rock sound, which AJJ has come to perfect on The Bible 2. Sean Bonnette is as playful as ever here, with his trademark oddly-funny-yet-simultaneously-affecting lyrics on full display (see “Junkie Church” below to see what I mean). The Bible 2 is just that, a replacement for the useless fire-and-brimstone original that touted shame and dread as positive attributes. “No more,” says AJJ, and dare I say, it is a much better Bible.


4. Pup – The Dream is Over

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I don’t give a shit / I just don’t wanna die and I don’t wanna live

A good friend of mine turned me onto Pup’s debut self-titled LP in 2013 with the qualifier, “This is good, but I’m interested to see where they go on their next record.” Well, Queppet, you were right (again). The Dream is Over takes the best parts of Pup and amplifies them – more driving guitars, more gang vocals, more technicality, more speed, more nuance, more everything. It’s lyrically superior as well, with vocalist/guitarist Stefan focused on navigating the nihilism and frustration of life in your mid-twenties – “It feels like I can’t win / I’m growing up and I’m giving in / and it’s starting to hurt / It feels like I can’t win / I couldn’t wait to be alone again / and I’m getting worse.” Watch the video for one of my favorite songs on the record, “Sleep in the Heat,” below, starring Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard in his second Pup video. Full disclosure: this video made me cry.


3. The Hotelier – Goodness

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I don’t know if I know love no more

Well, I’m nothing if not consistent. The Hotelier’s sophomore LP Home, Like Noplace is There was my #3 record of 2014, and here we are again. I didn’t expect another LP so quickly, so when Goodness was announced, I tried (and failed) to temper my excitement. Its first single “Piano Player” confidently embodied the completely different approach The Hotelier took to writing and recording Goodness that some initially found polarizing. It sounds how it looks – natural. The snare is oddly loud and piercing, the guitars are jangly and unproduced, the vocals are sometimes mixed to the back. It sounds like The Hotelier are playing in your back yard and there are daisies and dandelions and shit. There’s something inherently pastoral about its sound, and I absolutely love it. Bassist/vocalist Christian Holden’s lyrics and delivery are as poetically impressive as on Home… and, at times, even more so. Check out “Piano Player” below.


2. Every Time I Die – Low Teens

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Untimely ripped into this world / I was born again as a girl

 Every Time I Die is my favorite band and this is objectively their best record, and while I don’t know whether or not it will end up being my favorite ETID record, that much will remain true. Not only does Low Teens encompass every single sound the band has mastered over their 8-record career, it is without a doubt one of the most lyrically devastating works I could think of. In the winter of 2015, vocalist/lyricist Keith Buckley learned that complications had arisen with his wife during the birth of their first child and that both of their lives were in jeopardy. He left tour immediately and spent the following weeks at her side, uncertain if she or their newborn daughter would pull through (“The longest winter I have ever seen / from hospital to hospital, repeat”). Thank freaking God they both did, and what we’re left with are some of the most harrowing lyrics I have ever heard in my life. Keith Buckley has always been one of my favorite lyricists, but holy shit, I tear up at least once every time I spin Low Teens. Take, for example, the unrelenting “Petal,” in which Buckley concedes that if they go, he goes, too – “If I have to walk alone, I’m giving up / I can’t stay here knowing love is not enough.” Low Teens is a man on a ledge baring his soul and thus one of the emotionally rawest pieces of music you’ll ever hear. Whether you like heavy music or not, this will affect you, and I implore you to experience it.


1. Pears – Green Star

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From my mangled form, my heavy heart begins to lift / Ribs are built for breaking by design

The simplest way I can express just how much I love this record is that not only am I very aware that The Hotelier’s Goodness should probably be my AOTY, my number one favorite band, Every Time I Die, put out the best record of their career, and I STILL place it second under Pears’ Green Star. And the reason, too, is simple. This is my dream music. It’s the exact mixture of my favorite subgenres I would concoct in lab if I could. If I were to Weird Science a record, it’d come out like this. It’s aggressive, but highly nuanced. Heavy, but dynamically, not constantly. It’s fast, but uncannily melodic from beginning to end. These guys mastered punk on their second record – well, I guess so did Pup – but this is the specific kind of Fat Wreck Chords punk I was raised on. This is Bad Religion meets NOFX meets Strung Out meets fucking Sick of It All. For never having completed high school, vocalist Zach Quinn’s lyrics are unbelievably intelligent and challenging, and he’s developing quite the unique ability to aggressively address complicated emotions through melody.  Check out the title track. Is that intro not a Bad Religion part on steroids or what?

The Witch

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the quarter century I’ve spent on this planet, it’s this: don’t go to the movies on a Friday or Saturday night. It is the 11th Commandment, so obvious, it needn’t be chiseled. Yet, this past Friday, due to the restrictive nature of my carless existence, I had to jump at a chance to see THE WITCH. Now, if you be a wise person and have never seen a horror movie on opening night, you may not be aware of just how discouraging it is. And I don’t mean discouraging in the movie-going sense, I mean it in the life-living sense. The participating-in-society sense. It’s a fascinating cross section of the bottom of the social barrel. The majority of the crowd is there with one solitary intention – ruin stuff. These are the people that scream exaggeratedly, the people that laugh when a naked body appears, and the people that seem to, for whatever reason, aspire to break noise records in the field of popcorn consumption. They’re amazing, truly, and they’re out in droves. While my particular sampling of bozos eviscerated the trailers (THE PURGE: ANARCHY didn’t stand a chance against one guy’s sarcastic “Oh that looks great!”), they were oddly subdued during the majority of THE WITCH (which I like to pompously attribute to their inability to understand the dialogue) right up until the ending. The perfect, beautiful, overflowing-with-delicious-symbolism ending was completely derailed by moronic and inexcusable laughter, and the final shot? Punctuated with an obnoxious fake shriek from just one row back. And you know what? None of it affected me. I was enraptured. Ensnared. Enthralled. Lots of en-words. That’s how good THE WITCH is. I was frozen, because it’s not out to scare you. It’s out to petrify you.

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Set several decades before the Salem witch trials, THE WITCH follows a family whose patriarch, William, has been deemed too extreme by the town council. Uh, yeah, too extreme for Puritan society. He and his family are banished, as the Puritans are wont to do, and they settle a day’s walk from town at the edge of a deep patch of woods. William and his wife start a small farm with their children: the eldest, Thomasin; her younger brother, Caleb; fraternal twins, Mercy and Jonas; and a newborn boy, Samuel. One day during a game of peek-a-boo, Thomasin removes her hands from her eyes to find Samuel has vanished from his spot and a trail leading into the woods. Their mother, Katharine (played by the masterfully creepy Kate Dickie of Game of Thrones), is devastated, and eventually comes to suspect Thomasin of wrongdoing. That is all I will say about the plot. While its specifics aren’t crucial to its overall message, I think this film works better the less you know. It lulls you into a hypnotic state of awe.

The horror of THE WITCH is threefold. Its first aspect is natural. It’s the brutishness of agrarian life, the fear of the dark, the woods. In this way, the film is most like Lars von Trier’s divisive and disturbing ANTICHRIST. It utilizes imagery to convey a Rousseauian view of life, and it’s through that lens that William guides his family to see their religion. They are “steeped in sin,” born wicked, and in need of God’s grace and forgiveness at every turn. This fundamentalism is the second root of THE WITCH’s horror. The film makes clear just how fertile of a breeding ground for evil religious extremism really is – a message that tragically still applies. Thirdly, about midway through the film, it comes to light that Thomasin’s parents are preparing to find her a husband no matter her wishes, and THE WITCH adopts the necessary feminist plight of the historic Salem trials, which targeted nonconformist women. It’s this aspect of THE WITCH that its harrowing ending drives home so well.

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Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin in ‘The Witch.’ (A24)

Writer/director Robert Eggers saw to it that THE WITCH is as authentic as possible, making it an English major’s wet dream. Its language is true to the time, so you better dust off your ‘dost’s and ‘thou’s. Every single actor, children included, deserves remarking here as well. The material is dense, dated, and difficult, but is brought to believable life by each of them. The film is so authentic and unique that I worry we may not see another like it in quite some time, so I implore you to give it your time and support. They don’t make them like this often, and when they do, you have to cherish it. And don’t let some loser in the theater ruin it, either, though I doubt they could.

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Top 13 2015

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2015 was the weirdest year of my life, no contest. I stepped away from my life of 25 years and job of 10 to move 3,000 miles across the country. I never expected to find myself in Pacific Beach, California, and whether it be interesting or predictable, my list for the year is just as surprisingly odd to me. If you had shown me this list at this time last year, I’d have been shocked by how many bands I either didn’t know or actively didn’t care about. Thanks to some extremely promising new bands and 2015’s trend of bands getting way better in between their debut and sophomore LPs Brand New-style, this was a particularly difficult list to compile.

Looking back on last year’s post, few to none of my predictions came true. The Brand New record did not come. Nor did a Propagandhi, a Converge, or The Bronx V. I struck out pretty hard. But hey, it was still a great year regardless. I’m more confident in my picks this year than ever thanks to a jarring, redefining relocation and a considerably long cross-country road trip. I did a lot of listening this year, and now it’s time to sort it out.


 

13. NEEDS

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Born like this / into this

All hail NEEDS. I love this band so much. I actually found them thanks to Noisey.com because I’m the kind of music listener that is turned on by articles titled things like “Meet NEEDS, the Hardcore Band That Eats Garbage.” The first time I heard NEEDS was like the first time I heard The Bronx. Every cell in my body simultaneously went “Yup.” This is uncut hardcore. It’s driving, bass-heavy, and built for the basement. It’s desperate, but not overly serious. NEEDS has no agenda and certainly no overblown ideas about hardcore. Frontman Sean Orr made this clear to Noisey when he referred to “the futility of hardcore music to make any sort of lasting or real change,” a feeling that is evident in the opening lines of “We Forgot the Records to Our Record Release Show” – “What am I doing? / No, seriously, what am I doing? / I’m 36 years old / 37 in a couple of months / In a hardcore band / thought it’s probably more like punk / What am I missing?” To NEEDS, it’s all about the music. As Orr puts it, “It’s therapy, a way to deal.” THAT’s hardcore. Watch them hilariously play for a spin class below.


12. The Money Pit

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We work just to pay the rent / drinks on the beach and your money’s spent / and I could drag it out for another year, yeah / I could say what I think they wanna hear / but fuck that shit

This is my 2015 guitar record. My windows-down, pop-rock go-to when I need to unwind. The front half of Gatsby’s American Dream (vocalist Nic Newsham and guitarist Bobby Darling) have reunited and supplied us with one of the year’s best rock records. It’s straightforward, catchy, smart, punchy, drinkable, clever, a little beachy…everything you could want from a summertime rock record. For more depth and detail, check out my full review here, but for now, dance along.


11. Desaparecidos – Payola

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Now that you’re too big to fail / you’ll never have to go to jail / When you own it, you can rob the bank / A bloated Dillinger, a spray-tanned Jesse James

Man, a new Desaparecidos record. Whod’a thunkit. It’s been 15 years since the seminal Read Music/Speak Spanish, and the world is in such disarray that Conor Oberst deemed it time to return. For the uninitiated, Conor Oberst is Bright Eyes – well, half of Bright Eyes along with Mike Mogis, who also co-produced this record – but I digress. Desaparecidos is Oberst’s punk band. It’s loud, fast, raw, unbridled, and most importantly, smart. Like, Propagandhi-smart. Oberst uses his unrivaled (yes) lyrical abilites to take on a wide array of sociopolitical issues. “MariKKKopa” calls out the civil rights abuses of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, and includes a clip of Arpaio saying, I swear to Satan, the following: “…well, you know, they call you KKK. They did me. I think it’s an honor, right?” “The Left is Right” deals with the Occupy Wall Street movement: “It begins when we chain ourselves to the ATMs / Make a mess when we pitch our tents on the statehouse steps / Now we’re taking it back for the greater good / Goddamn Robin Hoods.” “Radicalized” addresses the obvious direct relationship between military aggression in the Middle East and religious radicalization: “My whole family tree has got nothing to eat / The machine guns guard the checkpoint from starving refugees / So when I stop to pray for the fifth time today / I still see my sister Alma with a hole in her skull / as the tanks pulled away.” Oberst is at the top of his craft here. It may be an unpopular opinion, but I believe Payola to be a better record than Read Music/Speak Spanish, which now by comparison just sounds like heavy Bright Eyes. Some have complained about how many of these songs have been around a while. I sympathize. 6 of these songs had been released previously on 7”s. Maybe this is why it’s not higher on my list, or why I don’t spin it as often as I should, but there are 8 other songs on here. I don’t think 14 great songs is something we should turn our noses up at.


10. Culture Abuse – Spray Paint the Dog

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If love’s not the answer / I’ll kick my way in

I’d been searching for Culture Abuse for years. I was looking for something raw, something loud. Something with attitude. I was looking for a band to remind me what punk was. To remind me what it was to revel in the underbelly, the aggressively shitty, the artistically gross mindset that punk music embodies. I found Culture Abuse and felt like moving around at a show again, not just standing, despondent, with my arms crossed. At only two songs, the psychedelic garage punk that Culture Abuse delivers on the Spray Paint the Dog 7” had me up and dancing more than any other release this year. They’re finishing up their debut LP as we speak (most likely in mixing), and I’d bet a stupid amount of money that I’ll be writing about them again on my 2016 list.


9. All Get Out – Movement EP

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I didn’t break it / it just fell

I must admit that All Get Out’s debut LP The Season has never done much for me. I enjoyed 4 or so songs, but to me, the group was just a poor man’s Manchester Orchestra (Manchester’s frontman Andy Hull produced this EP, as well as All Get Out’s forthcoming second LP). I would argue this to my friends, who would in turn try to defend the record’s quality, but my ego always shrugged it off. Boy, was I proven quite the fool when this EP came around. The announcement of the Movement EP came coupled with the announcement of a repress of The Season, which is probably why I initially blew the entire thing off. It wasn’t until a dear friend sent me the link to the stream of “Balance” on my walk home from work. What I heard shamed me. In the years between The Season and the Movement EP, All Get Out had quietly matured into one of the greatest current alternative rock bands. These 5 songs – yes, only 5, and still this high on my list – are masterfully fleshed out. You can hear the amount of time and care that was put into them. The music is as angular as the release’s artwork, dynamic and desperate, yet melodically catchy. Nate Hussey’s lyrics and impassioned delivery on this record have annihilated any negative “more of the same” thoughts I previously idiotically held about his songwriting. Now their second LP is one of my most anticipated of 2016. Hear the song that got to me below.


8. Ceremony – The L-Shaped Man

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Can you measure the loss?

On The L-Shaped Man, hardcore stalwarts Ceremony eschew any semblance of their trademark aggression in favor of a stripped-clean post-punk approach often attributed to Joy Division. Sure, every Ceremony record is different, and they’ve been moving away from their hardcore history more and more with each release, but this one was jarring. It initially didn’t sit well with me. I found it somehow even more abrasive than hardcore, despite how reserved it is. The melodies are bold, but tonally bare. The notes are stark and evoke a hollowness perfectly suited for the poetry of loss. The L-Shaped Man will undoubtedly stand out as Ceremony’s most unique record not merely due to its musical approach, but because of frontman/lyricist Ross Farrar’s focus on his recent breakup. The songs move through the stages of grief that follow a life-altering separation. “Exit Fears” shows Farrar trying to cope:  “You told your friends you were fine / You thought you were fine too / You told your family twice / how you had climbed up / But nothing in this world is fine / Nothing ever feels right / You have to tell yourself you tried.” On “Bleeder,” Farrar struggles to adapt to a solitary life: “Are you calling old friends again? / Have you forgotten how to live? / You stood screaming in your room / There was no one there / No one heard.” “The Bridge” chronicles the desperate rebound attempts: “Going out and finding other things / It didn’t hurt / It didn’t feel like anything.” The record closes with the entrancing “The Understanding,” which brings a sort of closure as it somberly rings out “Baby, say that it’s over.” The L-Shaped Man is an artistically immersive piece of work available with a companion book of poetry by Farrar that I highly recommend. He is also responsible for the single-stroke line drawing featured on the cover. Let him make you swoon below in the video for “Your Life in France.”


7. Foxing – Dealer

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Future love, don’t fall apart

Foxing arose during the misnamed “emo revival” of a few years back. Their debut LP The Albatross became a scene favorite amidst the odd surge of early aughts-inspired indie rock, and thus I all but ignored it. It wasn’t until I caught an impressive opening set of theirs that I decided to pick it up. All in all, I enjoyed a few of the songs, but the record as a whole never gained much traction with me. I was therefore relatively indifferent to their impending second LP. That was, until saw I them open for mewithoutYou this past summer. The small amount of then-unheard material they played was something to be beheld, and I preordered Dealer the second it was announced. My favorite thing about Dealer is how initially lackluster I found it. It was slower, softer, and in my mind, less effectively desperate. I remember only caring for 3 or 4 songs until I sat up late one night on a cold back porch and listened to it through headphones. Each song started to unravel itself, like every layer and movement was prostrating before me. Dealer finds a slower Foxing, less bombastic, denser and more nuanced. If The Albatross was an IPA, Dealer  is a Cabernet. On opener “Weave,” vocalist Conor Murphy aims to finally put The Albatross to rest: “Drained out a tunnel in an albatross / now I’m haunted by the bird / her hounds left tracks on my breath / until I had no more air left / Selling out an old soul for sales / I am caught up in the guilt / Making a living off of drowning / leaves me one step in the wrong / Have I been stuck here for so long?” Foxing listeners will recognize the allusion to the fan-favorite song “Inuit,” which centers around the line “I’m not waving / I’m drowning,” and how the final line could speak to how long the band has been relentlessly playing those same songs (which is much to their credit). “Night Channels” features a gorgeously reserved rolling piano melody over which Murphy intimately croons “We danced naked outside of your bathroom / until our bare feet sweat tracks in the tile / as you came, you moaned about loving them / such convenience in regret after the fact.” The song bursts midway through in a delicate wave of intersecting instrumentation, all the while maintaining the same melancholic piano melody. The sparse, marching “Indica” is a harrowing portrait of bassist Josh Coll’s time deployed in Afghanistan with lines like “And it breaks my mother’s heart / to know I came back broken / with the thought of my arms spilt open / And if so, would I bring their parents peace? / And if so, could I give back the sounds of their children’s screams? / Let go of what I’ve seen…” “Eiffel” is so good you just have to hear it. Sonically, Dealer may be the closest thing to bon iver, bon iver I’ve heard yet. It’s staggering how much Foxing has matured and improved with just one record, and it makes me almost nervous for how high my expectations will be come their next release.


6. Jeff Rosenstock – We Cool?

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I got so tired of discussing my future / I’ve started avoiding the people I love

It’s been 9 years since I found Jeff Rosenstock. Back then he was Bomb the Music Industry!, making amazing punk records with a mic and a computer and putting them up for free download. After 7+ records, Jeff put BTMI! to rest in style, but he still makes amazing punk records and puts them up for free. We Cool? is the second “Jeff Rosenstock” record, but the first widely distributed one thanks to a partnership with California label Side One Dummy. We Cool? is a fountain of aging punk gold with high energy songs like “Get Old Forever” (“Only one thing remains for sure / that we all get old together / and we all get old forever”) and “You, in Weird Cities” (“I’m always getting high when no is around / ‘cuz nothing makes me feel anything’s worthwhile”). We Cool? is Rosenstock’s most diverse record to date, including the likes of the twangy “Beers Again Alone” and the grungy, Weezery “Hall of Fame.” Watch the wonderful video for the crowd favorite “Nausea” below and see how full of tacos Jeff is.


5. The Sidekicks – Runners in the Nerved World

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I feel like how the Bulls felt in 1993

This record came out of nowhere for me. I’d always known of The Sidekicks due to their history with Red Scare Industries and even have a few of their early releases, but I never paid them too much attention. They went from punk to something in between punk and indie that didn’t excite me at the time. Early this year, I saw that they signed to Epitaph Records (a big leap), and announced Runners in the Nerved World. It was the title that intrigued me. I didn’t know what a “runner in the nerved world” could be, but I was damn sure that I was one. There were 2 songs available to stream at the time, and their titles intrigued me, too: “Jesus Christ Supermalls” and “Summer Brings You Closer to Satan.” How could those phrases not entice you? I was surprised to find the hazy pop-rock that dominates the record, and I immediately fell under its drone-like spell. This is actually one of my most-spun records of the year. I don’t think I’ll ever need another haze-pop record again (poor Turnover). Every song on Runners is drastically different, yet built from the same stoner-pop toolbox. It’s a tab of acid on a snowy beach, so make sure and get closer to Satan.


4.  Drug Church – Hit Your Head

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What it’s like to be broke, unpolished, unwashed & gross / What it’s like to be stuck, have nothing, get nothing but crushed

I’ve been a devout disciple of Drug Church since their 2012 self-titled 7”, one of my all-time favorite records. That I think Hit Your Head is their best collection of music since should hopefully tell you something. It’s abrasive, guitar-driven, grungy hardcore at its finest. Frontman and lyricist Patrick Kindlon (Self Defense Family, Loss Leader) is as entertainingly sardonic as ever, focusing on what he recently described to Substream Magazine as “the trashier side of growing up.” “Drunk Tank” perfectly encapsulates the inevitable hollow disappointment that comes with a night out with the chorus “It’s the night before / Thanksgiving and you expected more” before driving home the shittiness with “Drunk tank at 3am / you find yourself making friends / make the call home to mom/ fuck, she’s not surprised at all.” The album ends with the spoken word song “What” in which Kindlon narrates the mundanities of a trite, meaningless day and the resulting emptiness. The song, and thus the record, ends with the following: “For a time, you debate sleeping in your car – it’s now too late to call anyone. So you go home. It takes a long time for you to open the door, and when you do…” That desolate, expectant moment is Drug Church. The pang of empty, causeless frustration that only compounds with age. Let Drug Church exorcise that demon for you. Then hang out with it and hit your head.


3. The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die – Harmlessness

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Life will always be weird

Most of what I said above about Foxing could be applied to The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die. Having risen up through the “emo revival,” their last LP Whenever, If Ever did little for me. There were parts of songs I liked, but the full pictures never became clear to me. What I saw instead was intolerably messy, perhaps a symptom of finding their ~9 members a bit superfluous. I was curious as to how the band may have evolved when they released the video for “January 10th, 2014” in anticipation of Harmlessness, so I checked it out. I was floored. I couldn’t even believe it was the same band. The song chronicles the story of “Diana, the Hunter of Bus Drivers,” a female vigilante that killed two shuttle bus drivers in 2013 in Juarez, Mexico. The bus drivers of the city had been raping and murdering hundreds of women for decades with impunity, so Diana adorned a blonde wig, hailed the 718, and the shot its driver in cold blood. She repeated the act on the same route 24 hours later. Clearly, Harmlessness isn’t just the same old “emo” music. It’s wide, sprawling instrumentation that can turn on a dime. It’s unexpected, dynamic, yet not overly piecemeal it its arrangement. TWIABP has learned to utilize their wide and sometimes at-ends arsenal of sounds to crescendo emotion in immensely redemptive ways. Harmlessness was also a light in the dark when I needed it. I was struggling with displacement issues when it was released, and its overwhelmingly positive message did wonders for my mental health.


2. The Smith Street Band – Throw Me in the River

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Am I satisfied / or did I just come to terms with the hunger / that’s plagued me all my life / and made me live harder when i was younger

These days, what with my age and miserliness, it takes a lot for me to delve into the back catalog of a band. I have phone bills and student loan payments, so I can’t afford to trust your debut record’s probably-poor production and execution, okay? The Smith Street Band broke me with Throw Me in the River. It was my first exposure to the Australian posi-punks, and I immediately ordered every record they have. Within two months, they’d become one of my top bands – not an easy feat. Opener “Something I Can Hold in My Hands” is perhaps my song of the year, having become the soundtrack to my move across the country. “Surrey Dive” puts me right back at a party with my best friends on a wintry Pennsylvania night – “I’m just trying to pay an insurmountable debt / just trying to forget about my inevitable death / Chris threw up in the diner, and I was sick in the snow.” “Calgary Girls” is one of the most enthralling, heavy-hitting relationship songs I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing – “And I will tell you that my life didn’t crack up to what our life would have been / and I will stand up to say something / and fall straight back in my seat / and you will check your watch / and say it’s probably time for you to leave / and you will offer me a ride / only ‘cuz it’s so fucking cold outside / You were always far too kind.” The emotion fueling Throw Me in the River is simultaneously jubilant and sorrowful. It’s a feeling of home when you couldn’t be farther from it. Vocalist/guitarist Wil Wagner has since become one of my favorite songwriters, and I earnestly believe he could be one of yours too.


1. mewithoutYou – Pale Horses

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Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?

mewithoutYou has been instrumental to my livelihood for a decade now. I saw mewithoutYou on the day I was released from a psychiatric facility following a suicide attempt. I wept through nearly the entire show. mwY has remained a source of healing in my life, and Aaron Weiss (vocalist/lyricist) has always been able to cause tremors in me, to scare me with how harrowing and affective the written word can be. Pale Horses is no exception, and could very well be their best record yet. 12 years of Catholic schooling has always lent itself usefully to my understanding of Weiss’ oft-Biblical lyrical fare, though the religious aspect has never been what enticed me. It was his use of religion (not just one) to convey his meaning, his use of widely known parables and stories to construct masterful metaphors. On Pale Horses, things are a little less obvious. Addressing his recent marriage and the passing of his father, Weiss has written a more personal and complicated record. Philadelphia producer Will Yip brought his fuzzy expertise to perfectly complement mewithoutYou’s trademark sprawling reverb, with “Red Cow” being the prime example of how well Yip was able to tap into the band’s sound and amplified it. Closer “Rainbow Signs” ends the record on a devastating note as Weiss interlaces apocalyptic imagery from the Book of Revelations with intimate thoughts of his father. The album ends with Weiss describing an inside joke he and his father shared, but he never reveals the punchline, instead concluding crushingly: “The other night I dreamt I was finally out of college / In my own pair of sandals, I had turned into my father / Whistling my tune about the Rio Grande / like an anchorite in June, I took hold of my own hand / and started on the Abrahamic joke we knew / about apostrophes and pronouns and you-remember-who / but let’s keep that silly punchline between me and you, Little Haroon, and the man in the moon.” The moment rings out tenderly, and is without a doubt my favorite of the year. I implore you to watch the impressive double video for “Red Cow” and the gorgeous “Dorothy” below.

The Money Pit

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I didn’t know it, but I’d been waiting for this record for a long time. 9 years, in fact, because 9 years ago, influential emo-rockers Gatsby’s American Dream released their final, self-titled record. Don’t get hung up on that “emo” word, though. That signifier stems mostly from the unfortunate scene they were slumped into, not the music they made. GAD wasn’t writing breakup songs or teen heat anthems. They were smarter, more rebellious than that, more often than not employing literary, pop-cultural, & historical references in their lyrics & never shying away from an opportunity to take on the music industry. Their 2nd LP, Ribbons & Sugar, was loosely based on George Orwell’s brilliant novella Animal Farm. Their 3rd, Volcano (in reference to the historic city of Pompeii), included songs inspired by The Lord of the Flies & Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. Their final LP even had nods to the popular television series LOST. Suffice to say, Gatsby’s American Dream was unique. Odd, but intriguingly so. They had no qualms with whistle-blowing on the bullshit the “scene” was manufacturing at an alarming rate. The band reunited in 2011 with hopes of recording a new LP, but the album was never completed & unfortunately will never see the light of day. Many fans were let down by the news, so imagine the abounding jubilation earlier this year when former GAD vocalist Nic Newsham & guitarist Bobby Darling revealed their new band, The Money Pit.

Fans of Gatsby’s American Dream would be hard-pressed to find the songs on The Money Pit’s self-titled debut shockingly different from what they’re used to. Sure, things are a bit poppier (not a bad thing, caustic dum-dums), more straightforward, and certainly more structured (predictability was GAD’s archnemesis), but Darling’s punchy grooves & Newsham’s sly, sardonic wit are as prevalent as ever. The choruses are bigger & catchier, but not too tonally or melodically similar. While The Money Pit is sonically consistent, each song stands on its own. The record, however, can’t help but fade towards its end. Its final two tracks don’t hold up to the rest of the record’s energy, but don’t misunderstand me – this is in no way a comment on their quality. Both “Frustrated Inc.” & “Devastator” are impressively constructed songs, but would’ve been better suited interspersed throughout the record. If, for example, “Frustrated Inc.” had been placed between the dancy “Control Everything” & the rollicking “Call the Cops,” it would receive the attention it deserves. It’s simply an issue of sequencing – superficial, sure – & this being the record’s only issue is a testament to its overall quality.

The Money Pit’s subject matter is a crucial aspect of its DNA. Newsham has swapped the literary & historical references for a focus on the bleak state of modern American society, which is evident in both the band’s name & the record’s cover art. Opener “I Want My Money Back” cleverly describes the disenchantment many of us feel – “You gotta wait for the punchline / I swear this one will kill you / it’s being thirty-something in America & running for a train that left the station without you.” Newsham takes on the vapidity of our entertainment culture (“Hold for applause & cue the laugh track / Is that Pat Sajak? / I’m spinning a wheel where every other space is black / this shit is whack, & I don’t fucking buy that”) before relenting a frustrated “Sometimes I wanna blow up everything.” On “Control Everything,” he confronts the depressing capitalist “predicament” – “Now that I’m the king of everything, I know that I can control anything / Maybe I could help the lower class / Maybe I could make a ton of cash.” “Killing Time in Hawaii” addresses the drudgery of being a workforce peon & the need for escape it instills with lines like “We work just to pay the rent” & “I could drag it out for another year, yeah / I could say what I think they wanna hear / but fuck that shit.” My personal favorite, probably because it’s the most energetic song on the record, is “Blackout,” which ditches the worries of the other tracks & meets disillusionment with the only proper response – drinking (“Last night was a blackout / a waste of time, waste of money / & tonight I’ll be back out, hoping to finally feel something / but I won’t.”) Closer “Devastator” puts the entire record into perspective with a bleak portrait of the future – “With an appetite to whet, & the coming resource stress / you’ll get yours, & I’ll get mine.” It’s insights like these that set The Money Pit far above much of the indie-rock drivel being put out these days.

The Money Pit is a more-than-welcome return of Newsham & Darling’s musical partnership. It’s been 9 years since they put out a record together, & somehow, they haven’t missed a beat. Longtime friend & producer Casey Bates kept things simple & lean, yielding a catchy garage-rock sound that’ll have you doing much more than just tapping your foot. Pick up The Money Pit on September 4th & put your summer to death with a bang.

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Top 10 – Fat Wrecked for 25 Years

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This weekend, punk label Fat Wreck Chords is throwing a 25th anniversary bash in its home city of San Francisco. The two-day festival is the penultimate stop for the label’s celebratory run – I’ll be at the final show in LA on Monday (the tour will also reassemble in November for a show in Japan) – that features Fat Wreck Chords staples old & new, including NOFX, Lagwagon, Swingin’ Utters, Strung Out, toyGuitar, The Flatliners, & several others. Suffice to say, it’s a bit of a dream tour for me. In honor of the legendary label’s 25th, I decided to write up a Top 10 list of Fat records that have heavily influenced my life, which is also in its 25th year.

If it wasn’t for Fat Wreck Chords, I wouldn’t be who I am. I’m the youngest of four boys, & my brothers raised me on Fat bands since adolescence. My first Fat record was Swingin’ Utters’ Five Lessons Learned. There’s a picture of me (lost somewhere back in Pennsylvania) unwrapping the CD on Christmas morning, 1998. I was 8 years old, & my bucktoothed smile couldn’t have been wider. From an early age, my brothers made sure I didn’t turn into a “radio kid.” They would bring me into their rooms & play me songs, genuinely interested in whether I would like them or not. It was (admirably) important to them that I understood that mainstream culture wasn’t all that was out there. My brother Nick called me into his basement bedroom to hear NOFX & Propagandhi for the first time. Jon would make me mix tapes, aptly titled “Sam’s Cool Tapes,” with songs by Rancid, Bad Religion, Less Than Jake, & One Man Army. While not all of these are Fat bands, each spoke to the West Coast punk sound Fat Wreck Chords represents. Today, I own 95 of the label’s releases, not including the NOFX 7” box set. So yeah, this list was pretty tough. I restricted myself to one record per band, because otherwise you’d be reading about 3 None More Black records & at least 2 Utters records. It has some curveballs, as well. Trust me, it hurt when I had to cut out Dillinger Four.

10. Rise Against – Revolutions Per Minute (2003)

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“I have an American Dream / but it involves black masks & gasoline.”

Every record on this list fell into place relatively easily except for this #10 spot. I’m honestly a little surprised to be writing about Revolutions Per Minute & not D4’s C I V I L W A R or Western Addiction’s Cognicide, but I couldn’t deny how crucial this record was during my formative years. Compared to much of what I listen to now, this second LP from the Chicago superstars is pretty tame, but when I was 13, this was the heaviest record I had. Songs like “Dead Ringer,” “Halfway There,” & “To the Core” paved the way for the hardcore bands I would eventually get into. Its politics were influential, too, teaching me not to accept everything authority has to say at face value. I remember when my oldest brother first showed me “Heaven Knows.” I would sit at the family computer with the music video (below) on repeat until my dad finally drove me to Chester County Book & Music Co. to buy a copy. While I may not still follow the band, Revolutions Per Minute will always be an important record to me.

9. NOFX – The War on Errorism (2003)

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“The industrial revolution has flipped the bitch on evolution / The benevolent & wise are being thwarted, ostracized / What a bummer / The world keeps getting dumber / Insensitivity is standard, & faith is being fancied over reason.”

The War on Errorism was my first new NOFX record. Sure, my brothers had me well-versed on their crucial older records, but this was the first time I could share in their anticipation of fresh material from one of our collective favorite bands. I was 13. Before its official announcement, vocalist/bassist & Fat Wreck Chords owner Fat Mike joked that they were going to call it Our Second Best Record (he once cited So Long & Thanks for All the Shoes as his favorite), which makes sense, because this is some of the best NOFX material out there. George W. Bush’s incessant buffoonery sparked something in Fat Mike, whose newfound social conscience produced the band’s most intelligent and poignant content to date (well, okay, The Decline is the exception). Songs like “The Irrationality of Rationality” & “The Idiots Are Taking Over” bitterly lament American society’s dark truths (“Helen was living in her car trying to feed her kids / She got laid off of work, & her house was repossessed / It’s hard to think clearly when it’s 38 degrees / Desperate people have been know to render desperate deeds / But when she shot that family & moved into their home, the paper read she suffered from dementia”), while “Separation of Church & Skate” & “Medio-core” tackle the sorry state of the music scene (“Where is the violent apathy? / These fucking records are rated G / When did punk rock become so safe?”). “Franco Un-American” had me watching Michael Moore and reading Howard Zinn. Sure, I was young, naïve, & impressionable, but I’m lucky to have been impressed upon by intelligent, subversive ideas. I have NOFX to thank for that.

8. Smoke or Fire – Above the City (2005)

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“While they’re working for a drug free world / they’re taking all the money from the working man / so the working man turns to drugs / Forget everything they said / Don’t let them into your head / Can’t you see that’s what they want from you?”

I fucking love this record, & it disappoints me that I haven’t seen Smoke or Fire on any other Top Fat lists. It’s unfortunate that they never really got the attention or following they deserved. Above the City was the band’s Fat debut (& first release under the Smoke or Fire name), & I still spin it monthly. Save for its solitary acoustic track (an enjoyable drinking song), every song on this record is dimed out. Vocalist/guitarist Joe McMahon is rarely not at the peak of his register. There’s just so much energy here. Above the City is blue collar punk focused on the plight of the working class & political society’s failure to bolster the country’s backbone. Unfortunately, the message is as prevalent today as it was then. Here’s hoping McMahon writes another. I’m drowning in student loans & could sure use it.

7. Banner Pilot – Collapser (2009)

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“Something in the air makes me wonder / why the hell I’d care about tomorrow / when it’s all right here / the wine, the hope, & you.”

Banner Pilot has it all. If someone asked me to encapsulate the “Fat Wreck Chords sound,” I would just drop the needle on Collapser. Its driving, bouncy basslines, snotty, gravelly vocals, high degree of catchiness, & thick coating of drunken sentimentality make it one of the best Midwestern punk records I’ve ever heard. I downloaded “Greenwood” & “Skeleton Key” from Fat’s website & burned them onto their own CD so I could listen to them on repeat in the car until my copy arrived in the mail. I was 19, but I felt 12 again. I felt excited about punk. I felt affected. Even though I live in San Diego now, I can still feel a breath of early autumn wind when I listen to Collapser, & I hope that never fades.

6. Propagandhi – Potemkin City Limits (2005)

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“Chalk it up to an overdeveloped sense of unbridled vengeance / Somebody fed me too much New Hope for breakfast / ‘cause as The Empire (preemptively) Strikes Back (again) / & the voice of Luke’s father baritones, ‘This is CNN’ / I recall Arab kids slaughtered, reduced to sand-niggers & rag-heads / & now I’m expected to mourn dead Americans? / The executioner’s willing citizens?”

Like with NOFX’s War on Errorism, this was my first new Propagandhi record. Thanks to my frequent visits to Fat Wreck’s website, I heard “America’s Army (Die Jugend Marschiert)” before my oldest brother, an already big Propagandhi fan. I called him upstairs to hear it & vividly recall him, dumbfounded, saying, “That’s the best song they’ve ever written.” To this day, I’m still blown away every time I listen to this record, & the fact that they were a trio at the time defies reason. I genuinely don’t understand how Chris Hannah can play these guitar parts while singing. It goes without saying that Propagandhi is the “smartest” band you could find. Hannah’s lyrics read like graduate-level political science theses, each a focused, logically sound takedown of the issue at hand, be it war profiteering, systematic racism, or the Vans Warped Tour (before it was cool to hate on it). He even calls out Fat Wreck Chords’ label owner Fat Mike. Yeah, the guy funding & distributing the record. Hannah’s soaring vocals and blistering guitar leave no stone unturned. Propagandhi has since released two more masterpieces, but Potemkin City Limits will always have a special place in my heart.

5. Swingin’ Utters – Poorly Formed (2013)

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“The concrete bridges that span the highway are pretty / The concrete bridges that span the highway are ugly / I wanna live inside a house that’s a wilderness where no one goes / I wanna drink from a well, swim the lakes & rivers cut into the overgrowth.”

Picking a favorite Swingin’ Utters record is like picking a favorite friend. Sure, some edge out the others, but you don’t even want to. But I tried, & I’m near-certain it’s 2013’s Poorly Formed. Considering the Utters are one of my longest running beloved bands (17 years now, shit), it’s pretty remarkable that my go-to record is a recent one, & is surely a testament to how deliciously their songwriting has aged. They are a genre unto themselves, having blended folk, classical, & street-punk into an entirely unique sound. No band sounds like the Utters, not even the members’ other bands or solo endeavors. Poorly Formed is special to me because it was the first Utters record to showcase Jack Dalrymple’s stylistic contribution to the group (yeah, yeah, I know “Effortless Amnesiac” was on Here, Under Protest, but that’s one song). The addition of Dalrymple (ex-One Man Army, The Re-volts, Dead to Me, toyGuitar) has no doubt been a rejuvenating factor for the band, which was on hiatus from 2003 until 2011. They’ve already put out 3 LPs in the last 4 years & have no plans on slowing down, which frankly astonishes me, because if you’d have told me when I was 8 & rocking Five Lessons Learned that the Utters would still be killing it when I was 25, I may have had trouble believing you.

4. Dead to Me – Cuban Ballerina (2006)

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“An overwhelming, resonating voice / second-guessing every single choice / Now I’ve gotta find a new escape / for this blood that itches & this head that aches / I’ve got no reaction / Every action is true.”

I can’t even begin to describe to you how excited I was when I read about Dead to Me on Punknews.org. One Man Army had been a favorite band of mine for years solely because of Jack Dalrymple’s raspy croon, & I think I cried when they called it quits (I was 14 & emo had made crying cool, okay?) When the first few Dead to Me demos showed up on Myspace, I ripped them onto a CD-R that I quickly wore out. Luckily, the band re-recorded those songs for their debut LP, Cuban Ballerina, which has since become a unanimous favorite among us Fatties. I was initially a bit bummed that Dalrymple wasn’t handling 100% of the vocal duties, but I quickly realized how important to the DNA of Dead to Me & the effectiveness of Cuban Ballerina the vocal interplay of Dalrymple & ex-Western Addiction member Chicken actually was, especially since much of the record’s subject matter deals directly with Chicken’s history with hard drug addiction. Cuban Ballerina is fast, loud, catchy, dark, & dynamic, & I couldn’t be more thrilled that Dalrymple recently rejoined the band. Now can we get a repress of this one, Fat?

3. Against Me! …as the Eternal Cowboy (2003)

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“So can your pop sensibilities sing me the end of the world? / Turn gunshots and mortar blasts into a metaphor of how we are all the same / Well, there’s a lot of things that should be said, so we’re hammering six strings / Machine gun in audible voices / This is the party we came for.”

This was my first Against Me! record, & it led to an all-out obsession. I picked it up in anticipation of a 2003 Fat-centric tour featuring None More Black, AM!, Rise Against, & Anti-Flag. Holy shit, indeed. In a dark, indecent time when bands like Sum 41 & New Found Glory were considered punk, Against Me! was A New Hope. Led by Tom Gabel, who has since revealed herself as punk rock queen Laura Jane Grace, the four-piece were, for a time, unrivaled when it came to sing-along folk-punk, a genre that’s not easy to make your own. But with a tinny snare drum sound, a jangly Rickenbacker guitar tone, & Grace’s ability to sound gruff & still carry a vibrato, AM! pulled it off. …as the Eternal Cowboy’s details alone read like the perfect punk record – 11 tracks in 25 minutes, including 3 acoustics & an instrumental. Melodramatic anarcho-punk assholes were offended when Against Me! signed to Fat & put out this more “polished” record, but I guarantee you they felt like idiots while the rest of us were screaming along to “Sink, Florida, Sink.” I still tear my throat apart to this record, & I always will.

2. None More Black – File Under Black (2003)

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“Sit down & let the feeling take control / Creepy, can’t hide it with a smile / I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in god / but I can pretend for a little while.”

Jason Shevchuk is, without a doubt, my favorite songwriter. No matter the project, be it Kid Dynamite, None More Black, OnGuard, or Lagrecia, Shevchuk’s punk sensibilities are untouchable. No one on this or any other planet knows better where to put a “woah-oh” or a “hey!” It’s just in his blood. None More Black rose from the ashes of Kid Dynamite (Shevchuk is rather infamous for ending projects), & File Under Black was their first full length record. There has since been two more LPs & an EP, & frankly, File Under Black isn’t necessarily my favorite. It’s just my most spun. It’s also inarguably the most straightforward NMB record. While follow-ups This is Satire & Icons upped the complexity level with varying paces & keys, File Under Black is lungs-to-the-wall, piss & vinegar-soaked punk rock. This is my “fuck off, everything” record, the one I put on during a heated bike ride when everything in my brain is flashing middle fingers. It also doesn’t hurt that the songs titles are mostly derived from Seinfeld (there’s an OFFICE SPACE one, too). Please, Mr. Shevchuk, make another record. I don’t care what you call it!

1. The Lawrence Arms – The Greatest Story Ever Told (2003)

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“I’m tending the pyres of my frustrations / burning leaves on buried dreams, kneeling in to rake the ashes / I’m embering / You’re smoldered out / My hands are free / My lungs are proud / Your forgiveness is a fading fiction / These flames have never burned so high / I won’t be staring in your eyes.”

Not only is The Greatest Story Ever Told my top Fat record, it’s my favorite record of all time. For those unaware, The Lawrence Arms are 3 best friends from Chicago who had previously played in several quintessential Midwestern punk bands, such as Slapstick, The Broadways, & Baxter. This record is the trio’s 4th LP, & still stands as their most unique due to its romanticized circus theme, literary influences, & generally somber tone. I ordered the record off Fat’s website after hearing “On With the Show,” which features a breakneck pace & bassist Brendan Kelly’s rocks-in-a-blender vocal style, so imagine my surprise when I popped the CD into the stereo & heard guitarist Chris McCaughan’s crisp-as-an-autumn-night croon on “The Raw & Searing Flesh.” It’s this duality that makes The Greatest Story Ever Told. Kelly’s songs take care of the punk with high infusions of speed & attitude, while McCaughan’s tracks paint a dreamy portrait through melody & melancholy. The record is rife with literary & cultural references, including nods to Kafka, J.D. Salinger, & most prominently Mikhail Bulgakov. It’s a bit pretentious to say, but this is the record that made me want to be a writer.

Irrational Man

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Despite how much I genuinely adore his work, I can only call myself a casual Woody Allen fan. I’ve now seen 10 of his films, which would seem like a high number if his feature length directorial efforts didn’t number in the high 40’s. I’ve read two of his four prose collections, Getting Even  & Side Effects, both of which I enjoyed immensely. Still, that being only a fraction of his work, I feel entirely unqualified to be writing about Woody Allen. I suppose this is a disclaimer. Well, anyways…

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Allen’s 50 year film career has seen dizzying peaks, ocean-floor lows, and just about every single notch of the atmosphere in between. At this point, his Stephen King-level rate of output (averaging a film per year) can seemingly only yield two results: (1) a taut, eloquent, philosophically engaging tour de force that couldn’t possibly have been achieved in a year; or (2), a tired, plot-retreading dud that can’t help but feel both rushed, and even worse, forced. IRRATIONAL MAN is, unfortunately, a #2.

That’s not to say the film is all bad. Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone (who is apparently Woody’s latest muse), and Parker Posey all nail their roles. Phoenix is almost too believable as the drunken, nihilistic philosophy professor Abe Lucas, and both Stone and Posey succeed in adding depth to cliché characters – Stone, the doting grad student who has fallen hopelessly for her enigmatic professor, and Posey, the unhappily married romantic longing to be whisked away to Spain to start anew. The questions Allen raises with the film are not entirely without merit, either. Engaging with Kant, Kierkegaard, and Sartre (by way of Abe’s classroom lectures), he waxes on the question of objective morality – more specifically, the notion of a justifiable murder. Perhaps the best morsel of philosophy Allen espouses through Abe is a simple point levied at the arguers of a perfect world (Plato’s ideal forms, Kant’s “No-Lying” world, etc.) – that those worlds are simply not reality – not the “real” world we’re speaking in, and therefore irrelevant to “me.”

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Aside from all this, it’s inarguable that IRRATIONAL MAN was ripped right out of Allen’s old, sometimes-trusty playbook. The back-and-forth voiceover narration of Phoenix and Stone attempts to infuse the story with thoughtful insight, but comes off stuffy and only adds to the film’s rushed feeling. It relies on the typical Allen tropes of nihilism, morality, inappropriate relationships, love triangles, self-deprecation, and the like, which render the film ironically just too “Woody Allen.” The murder plot itself too closely resembles Allen’s earlier works CRIMES & MISDEMEANORS and MATCH POINT, which both had far more believable motivations. It becomes clear just how much Allen was phoning this one in when the flashlight serves the same-but-opposite “unexpected” purpose as the ring in MATCH POINT. Nice try, Woody. All in all, IRRATIONAL MAN isn’t a complete misfire, but still contributes next to nothing to Allen’s filmography. It is the cinematic equivalent of a shrug.

Woody Allen is a genius, but we can’t expect a piece of genius every year. His work speaks for itself (24 personal Oscar nominations) and will continue to. I for one am looking forward to his upcoming Amazon series (his first), as well as his next feature length picture. Let’s just hope it’s not another #2.

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The Gallows

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Every time a found footage film is released, critics are quick to proclaim either the death or the rejuvenation of the medium. The fact of the matter is that found footage is now an inextricably entwined facet of horror like zombies and slashers, so these proclamations are entirely meaningless. Found footage isn’t going anywhere. All we can do is hope that it’s done well, just like every other type of horror movie. There are bad zombie movies. There are bad slasher movies. And, like THE GALLOWS, there are bad found footage movies.

I wanted THE GALLOWS to be good. I really wanted it to be good. The ingredients are all there: bratty high school kids running amok; dark, creepy, Halloween-decorated school halls; a decent-enough ending “twist.” The problem with THE GALLOWS is in its execution (sorry, pun intended). Writer/directors Travis Cluff & Chris Lofing’s hearts were in the right place, but it’s a complete mess. The film begins in 1993 with audience footage of a school play, The Gallows. Thanks to painfully on-the-nose narrative spoon-feeding (a common theme of THE GALLOWS), it’s clear the camera holders are the male lead’s parents. A prop malfunction leads to his live hanging, which isn’t by any means a bad premise, but whatever sense of eeriness this scene has is ruined by the obnoxious exposition going on behind the camera as the parents of Charlie Grimille loudly whisper about how well their boy is doing, despite being a stand-in. Trust me, THE GALLOWS is going to treat you like an idiot. Considering its R-rating, you’d think that THE GALLOWS wouldn’t be geared toward imbecilic 14-year olds, but you’d be wrong.

We jump forward 20 years, and Beatrice High School is once again putting on a production of The Gallows – I know believability is already out the window here, because no institution would ever, ever allow such a thing (the weak justification is a meager “we can finally finish it”), but bear with me, it gets worse. Our protagonists are Reese, Ryan, Cassidy, & a “drama geek” named Pfeifer. Reese & Ryan are football players, and Cassidy, Ryan’s girlfriend, is a cheerleader. As is too often in found footage, the first 20-or-so minutes are excruciating. Our cameraman Ryan is the over-actor of the century, & that he’s playing a boorish, “geek”-bullying jock stereotype only makes things worse. In fact, the film’s initial moments spend so much time sloshing around in the jock-versus-nerd trope that towards its conclusion, I grew hopeful that the film’s events were merely a massive prank orchestrated by said “drama geeks.” Alas, I was instead let down for the umpteenth time. Now, I’m going to ruin this movie for you, because frankly, you shouldn’t see it. That would encourage a sequel, which would be a crime. So, SPOILERS AHEAD.

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Now, our heart-throbby main character, Reese, is set to play the same role that Charlie played 20 years before, despite best friend Ryan’s objections based on how “lame” or whatever theater is and how bad of an actor Reese is (which is true on multiple levels). He is set to act opposite the goody-two-shoes Pfeifer, who is stereotypically modeled after the girl that reminds the teacher they forgot to collect the homework. As it turns out, Reese “like-likes” Pfeifer, and that’s why he took the role. Okay, so far, so bad. Now, it’s Ryan’s job in this drama class (which is mandatory or something?) to film all of the behind the scenes action, so at least our “why is this being filmed?” question is answered, albeit lazily. Ryan interviews (sarcastically, for some reason – I mean it, this kid was written horrifically) parents that are volunteering to help with sets & costumes about what happened 20 years ago. He points out a pale, dark-eyed, disheveled woman sitting in the back row, and says something along the lines of “I don’t know if she’s a parent.” Can you feel my eyes rolling into the back of my head? It doesn’t get more predictable than this. Next, Ryan finds a door leading outside from backstage that doesn’t latch, and comes up with the bright idea to come back at night, ruin the set, and save his buddy from total embarrassment. As the resident “dumb blonde” (who is actually the best actress in the film), Cassidy is “totally down,” and they convince Reese it’s his best option. So they return to the school at night, which is thankfully immensely unnerving, and begin breaking lights and disassembling the gallows. After a few cheap noise-scares, the group bumps into Pfeifer in the halls, everyone screams, and she explains that she saw Reese’s car in the lot and came in to see why he was there……did you catch that? How stupid do these writers think we are? Anyway, yada-yada-yada, the four of them realize they’re now locked inside with no cellular service ooooohhh-aahhhhhhh and that “something’s going on.” So they explore and undergo a couple of cliché jump-scares before Reese figures out and then spoon-feeds to us that, “wait, oh no, my dad was the one who called in sick 20 years ago making Charlie take his place.” Okay, fine. So Ryan & Cassidy die. Cassidy’s death scene is probably the film’s best scene, but was also the first trailer released for the film and serves as its poster. Way to go, guys.

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Things are close to the end when Reese realizes that what’s happening is gee-golly sure starting to look like the end of the play itself, in which the male lead gives himself up to the noose to spare his blushing lover. So, by chance, they end up on stage in the same general positioning, recite their lines (yeah), Reese walks up to the gallows, and puts his head in the noose. Pfeifer keeps playing her part even though Reese is adamant she can leave now, yelling at her to run, and this is when we’re supposed to go “OH BABY SHE WAS IN ON IT WOWWWOWW!” So through static in the camera (the writers really didn’t want to commit either way to Charlie having a body or being incorporeal), we see Charlie pull the lever, hang Reese, and then join Pfeifer hand-in-invisible-hand for a bow. A single light illuminates the audience, and who is there applauding? You guessed it – the creepy lady from the beginning. She was Charlie’s girlfriend, and Pfeifer is their daughter. Woof. Then, just to pour salt in it all, there’s a coda where Charlie hangs some cops, too. I am not going to honor this scene with an explanation. It’s just downright offensive.

If found footage was going to die anytime soon, THE GALLOWS would’ve killed it. I could’ve sympathized if it were rated PG-13 and marketed as a date movie for prepubescents, but it wasn’t. Hell, they even marketed Charlie as a new Jason or Michael Myers. If I were John Carpenter, I would try to sue for that. I am only glad this movie exists so future found footage directors can use it as a template of what not to do. I implore you not to waste your time. Just watch THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT again. It’s still genius.

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Retroview: The Blood Brothers – Crimes

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The first time I heard the Blood Brothers, I fucking hated them. I’m sorry for getting profane, but it’s hard for me to express just how assaulting I found them. I was 14, and I had been happy in my three-chord punk hovel. There was melody. There was structure. There were “whoa”s and “hey”s in fun, catchy places! I had it all. But one morning in October of 2004, the Blood Brothers broke something in my brain. And I could never thank them enough.

As a student, I would wake up two hours before school to get papers done on their due date. I am an insufferable procrastinator, and the pressure would serve me well. Eventually, it became ritualistic. I would sit at the computer, drink coffee, listen to music, and spew drivel into Microsoft Word. I don’t remember the paper, or even the class, but I’ll never forget seeing the link on Punknews.org: “The Blood Brothers stream their new album Crimes.” I can’t tell you why I clicked it. I just liked it. The sound of it. The Blood Brothers. Crimes. Then I saw the cover, and I liked it, too. I saw a hideous, tropical glamour in it. No music I had heard before could adopt such an aesthetic. I hit play on track 1, “Feed Me to the Forest,” and my heart sunk. I wanted to like it so badly, and I didn’t. I detested it. It made no sense to me. It was just noise. And is that a guy?  What is happening? For some reason (most likely my need to complete the paper) I didn’t change it, just tuned it out, and soldiered on. Later that afternoon on the bus ride home, I was shocked when I found myself with this melody in my head, it had only one word…”uh-love, love, love, uh-love, love, love…” It was track 3, “Love Rhymes with Hideous Car Wreck.” Shit. They had me. I had to hear that song again. I had to figure out how it had bored its way into my mind in such a different way. It had thrashed its way under my skin, and it was going to answer for it.

I must have listened to that stream 20 times before I made my way to Chester County Book & Music Co. I had bought countless records there before, but very few had felt so monumental. This wasn’t my normal fare. This was a step. A plunge. A fall into an entirely new mindset. I pored over every moment of Crimes. I felt strange, like I was transforming. I was Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf anxiously darting through the halls. Who could understand this? I wasn’t proud of it (like I regrettably was about punk bands in grade school). I didn’t feel cool, I felt estranged.

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I dove headfirst into their discography. The 2003 major label debut and fan favorite Burn, Piano Island, Burn in all its post-hardcore glory, 2002’s heady, conceptual March on Electric Children, and their 2000 debut, This Adultery is Ripe, a cacophony of angst and attitude. Crimes came out on October 12th, and I had devoured them all by Thanksgiving. Each record was at one point my favorite. Christ, my Xanga name (yeah, remember Xanga?) was BoilingLobsterChoir, an allusion to “Rescue,” the first track off This Adultery is Ripe. The band split up after Crimes’ follow-up Young Machetes and after the dust settled, I found myself, and still do, compelled to return to Crimes. And I mean this significantly, as in, it may be one of my most heavily spun records ever. I always thought this was merely because it was my first Blood Brothers record and chalked it up to nostalgia. Turns out, even Blood Brothers co-vocalist Jordan Blilie agrees with me. In a recent entry of Noisey’s “Rank Your Records” with Dan Ozzi (a great series of articles worth checking out), Blilie gives Crimes the crown. Calling it “consistent” and “direct,” he explains how the band “stripped down” after the chaotic Burn, Piano Island, Burn. While Crimes is certainly still noisy, its noise has fewer and more sensible sources, and they all but abandon Burn’s opening call of “Turn up the gain!” In turn, the songs work better (read: less nonsensically) live, and generally feel more streamlined. Blilie (rather reluctantly) uses the word “groove” when talking about how the band seemed to have “embraced the feel and rhythm.” No matter what “post-this” or “pre-that” the pedantic try to call the Blood Brothers, at its core, Crimes is a punk record – loud, angry, sarcastic, satirical, and snotty – but the “groove” Blilie is referring to is what sets it apart. There’s a lounge quality to these songs, a necessity to envision the simpler tracks like “Crimes” and “Live at the Apocalypse Cabaret” being performed in a smoky basement bar straight out of a noir film (not unlike what they captured in their video for “Love Rhymes with Hideous Car Wreck”). Earlier Blood Brothers songs had been catchy, sure, but moments of Crimes hinder on outright pop thanks to more commanding keys and Johnny Whitney’s freshly tapped vocal potential. Blilie addresses this as well, saying the two “settled into very distinct vocal characteristics,” Blilie himself dipping into a lower, smoother croon, while Whitney soared upward into higher, glam-like peaks. It’s this schizophrenic dichotomy that came to define my high school experience, this dualistic nature, a second voice to convolute things even further as adult responsibility began to materialize. On a grander scale, the pair’s spastic interplay yielded a perfect storm that encapsulated American life in the early 2000s.

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The value of Crimes’ content (both musical & lyrical) is not just intrinsic, it’s structuralistic. Blilie recounts its writing process during the era of “Bush Two” and “Iraq War hysteria.” In their trademark surrealist lyrical style, he and Whitney succeeded in capturing a raw image of the dawn of the 21st Century: the decay of popular culture, the advent of reality television, corporate and political malfeasance, voyeurism, generational disillusionment, “the violence of wartime” – nearly every line of Crimes serves to claw at the fabric of bourgeois society. “Trash Flavored Trash” tackles the caustic culture of celebrity worship – “Take me to the pit of celebrity pregnancies / I want to wear the skin of a magazine baby / take me to the pit of celebrity pregnancies / the five o’clock news is a fucking fantasy.” “Teen Heat” takes aim against mainstream music and its puppeteers, likening radio hit producers to harbingers of the rapture – “The Fifth Horseman stuffs the radio with singles until it’s sick to its stomach / he scouts the dumpsters for a cobweb guitar to polish into a superstar / finds the gurgle of a skeleton without love / turns it into a commercial.” Two years before the hanging of Saddam Hussein, “My First Kiss at the Public Execution” shamed our murderous mob mentality – “Won’t you behead another / c’mon, we’re waiting / won’t you shock and entertain us / until the end of the world?” They even touch on the priest molestation scandal the Boston Globe tackled in 2002 – “Scarecrow, did you hear about the priest they found jerking off in the confession booth? / His collar spinning like a top / he looked so pathetic crying to the cops.” Most pervasive of all, however, is the theme of militarism and misguided patriotism in post-9/11 America. In “Celebrator,” Blilie and Whitney paint a sickening, yet unfortunately apropos portrait of war profiteering (“Every soldier’s spitting black cum from their victory hard-on”) and the propaganda it spawns – “I just wanna join the party, but the piñata’s filled with oil & sand / I just want the flag to be my baby, but her kissing breath is so revolting / tastes like hospitals…machine guns…burning hair…McDonald’s buns / I peel the wrapping paper back, & I’m staring at an amputee / when they fish a corpse out of the pool / the applause light goes ‘beep, beep, beep, beep.’” When we look deeper beyond the cleverness and attitude behind these words, it’s easy to see just how poignantly relevant they remain over a decade later.

With Crimes, not only do the Blood Brothers challenge societal shortcomings, they explore their consequences – a disaffected, disillusioned generation unwilling to inherit the world it’s been left. Opener “Feed Me to the Forest” bitterly asks, “See the smoke stacks rising up like ‘fuck you’ towers?” before sarcastically continuing, “Got a view of a cement lawn / amputated horizons / thanks for the survival rags / thanks for the soiled skies / thanks for the fucked-up future / we can learn to love our misery,” and concluding with the darkly tongue-in-cheek, “Sick squeal, dull moan / looks like your neighbors found another victim / a scream is heard, but no one comes / ‘oh honey, won’t ya turn the TV on?” The subdued and haunting title track slowly burns into a ballad for the unrepresented, dispossessed millennial youth as Blilie laments, “And the children in the subway eating apple cores… / is anybody listening? / they’re breathing paint out of plastic bags / their mumbled mouths say…‘is anybody listening?’”

With Crimes, the Blood Brothers pinpointed the pulse of a generation and weren’t afraid to explore its spasms, its irregularities, and amplify them. That it’s their simplest in sound only serves to bolster its complexity. While most early 21st Century alternative music didn’t speak to much more than breakups and heartache (although still formidable muses), the Blood Brothers strove to be something more, something greater, something that would extend long into adulthood. These aren’t just vapid, trite protest songs – these are Dali paintings with a social conscience. If you haven’t checked out Crimes yet, I couldn’t possibly recommend it more. It’s for you, I promise, no matter how off-putting you may initially find it. It says things you want to say and asks things you want to ask – the only problem is, “Is anybody listening?”

The Babadook

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After comparing it to the likes of Alien and Psycho, William Friedkin called The Babadook the most terrifying film he’d ever seen. Yes, the director of The Exorcist, one of the most infamous horror films of the 20th century, said that Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s debut feature length film “scared the hell out of” him. I’m not sure much more endorsement is needed. For what it’s worth, I can corroborate Mr. Friedkin – The Babadook had me the most afraid I’ve been since I watched The Blair Witch Project…when I was 9. Even more refreshing than The Babadook’s ability to induce such dread is its story – odd, specific, unique, and most importantly, rife with symbolism and psychological significance.

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The Babadook revolves around suburban widow Amelia and her troublesome adolescent son, Samuel. Plagued by a fear of monsters, Samuel spends many nights in his mother’s bed and much of his days ingeniously engineering weapons and traps to fend them off. When we learn early on that Samuel’s father was killed in an accident while racing to the hospital with Amelia deep in labor, her and Samuel’s relationship takes on fascinating Oedipal traits. Due to the timing of the tragedy, he very much literally and immediately replaced his father. The shots of them in bed together, him asleep, pressing himself into her, grinding his teeth, his insistence on his role as Amelia’s “protector,” it all takes on a deeper psychological meaning as the film unfolds. That’s the beauty of The Babadook – it’s not just a series of jump-scares. There’s palpable depth and purpose here.

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One night when choosing his bedtime story, Samuel pulls a pop-up book from the shelf called Mister Babadook. It’s important to note here that the book wasn’t exactly discovered or at all delivered – it was always there. When Amelia questions Samuel as to where it came from, he bluntly states, “the shelf.” The book depicts the Babadook, a figure in a trench coat and top hat that knocks three times (“baba-dook-dook-dook”) before entering your room at night. Understandably disturbed by what she sees, Amelia hides it, even (futilely) tries to destroy it, but it’s of no use – Samuel is already obsessed with the Babadook, claiming to see it everywhere. As his behavioral problems grow more severe, Amelia begins to unwind, and at her wit’s end, she, too, begins to see the Babadook.

The film is as relentless as its monster. Its colors are washed out and yield a lifeless suburbia that could apply nearly anywhere. Its moments of ease are few and far between – if I had to boil The Babadook down to one phrase it would be “90 minutes of pure dread.” The sound department deserves special recognition here as many of the film’s most paralyzing moments are rooted in sound – the knocks on the door, the voice on the phone, the tense score that never lets up. The creature itself is grotesquely unnerving with its long, black fingers, and is made all the more disturbing by the notion that this is merely the entity’s disguise. According to the book, once you see what’s underneath, you’ll “wish you were dead.” Having studied under Lars von Trier on the set of his challengingly minimalistic Dogville, Kent knows how to make a visually fascinating film. She often delves into surrealism, such as during appearances of the Babadook, its several harrowing dream sequences, and the hallucinogenic images Amelia sees on her TV screen as her insomnia worsens.

Kent derived the word “Babadook” from the Serbain term for “boogeyman,” “Babaroga.” What the Babadook actually is does become clear – it is a manifestation of Amelia’s grief. It is her inability to face and accept the tragedy that has befallen her, and it is the oppressive pall of depression and resentment that she has raised Samuel under (of which his fear of monsters is symptomatic). Amelia’s fight against the Babadook is a postpartum struggle to assert herself as a mother. In an interview with Movies.com, Kent outlined her intentions:

I was pretty sure I was going to get a lot of criticism for this portrayal of a woman who is far from perfect. But what I’ve experienced is the opposite. A lot of women are kind of breathing a sigh of relief that there’s a real and complex woman up on-screen. And she’s struggling and that it’s showing that motherhood is not the dream that society wants to pretend it is. It throws up questions like is maternal love inherent in women? Is it always there? And how much do we lose from being parents, male or female, but obviously more for women.

The Babadook isn’t just scary. That’s not why it’s special, and certainly not why someone like William Friedkin would endorse it (he went so far as to host an early screening in LA). The Babadook is special because, like all truly great, timeless horror films, it’s about something. It’s scaring you on a deeply psychological level and for a reason. It’s not just playing on our fear of a being encroaching upon us in the safety of our own beds (which I personally find immensely unsettling), it’s exploring our capacity for tragedy. The details of Amelia’s experience are shown in a revelatory flashback, and what she witnessed and endured is staggeringly disturbing. What would that do to a person? To a mother? To us? With The Babadook, Jennifer Kent has created a modern horror masterpiece of both mood and story. She respectably bought any and all rights to the property, and will never allow a sequel or remake, telling IGN that “it’s just not that kind of film. I don’t care how much I’m offered, it’s just not going to happen.” Such resolve deserves respect, and if she’s as prolific as she told TheFilmExperience.com she hopes to be, and any of her films are even half as good as The Babadook, we’re in for a treat.

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