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.
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.
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?”