The Offspring: Americana (pt. 2)

Previously, on Two Matts:

Matthew has complicated feelings about punk. He doesn’t like it in principle, but when confronted with the actual music, he has to admit that there’s more to it than he usually tends to think. Matthew’s complicated feelings got even more complicated when he found that he absolutely adores NoMeansNo’s Wrong, the second album Matt assigned him. Matthew was forced to admit that there’s a tremendous chasm between the Platonic ideal of punk rock he has in his head and the reality of a genre that has evolved and fragmented over the course of decades. Now, Matt has assigned Matthew a successful late-90s pop-punk album, and Matthew’s complicated feelings are being dredged up again…

americana

Dear Matt,

Well, shit. I like this one too.

I’ve got to admit, I wanted to despise this album. In general, on this blog, I’ve tried to keep an open mind. I’ve written before about how I generally think that when I don’t like something it’s my own fault, so I always approach new music hoping to like it. But when you assigned the Offspring, my first thought was ‘Ah, here’s my opportunity to really tear into something.’

I’m not quite sure why I had it in for Americana. I certainly didn’t feel the same when approaching Wrong. Maybe it’s because, now that we’ve established that I can’t attack punk at its ideological roots and have it be anything other than a totally facile critique, I feel more comfortable lashing out at a band that’s signed to a major label and scoring massive radio play. But that doesn’t make any sense, because the whole notion of ‘selling out’ doesn’t actually upset me. Plus, I don’t even have any sympathy for the SoCal skatepunk DIY values that the Offspring were probably betraying, here.

All the same, for whatever reason, I came to this album expecting some blend of annoyance and outrage that could only be mitigated by writing something angry and indignant about it. But around three songs in, I was unable to deny that I was enjoying myself. No matter how hard I tried not to.

You pitched Americana to me as a disc of summer jamz, and it is that. I listened to it on a bus, on a sunny day, after work. When the album was over and I found that I was early getting to my destination, I immediately listened to ‘Why Don’t You Get a Job?’ three more times. Then ‘She’s Got Issues’ twice. Then ‘Pay the Man’ again.

So basically, I’ve once again been confronted with the difference between the way I think about punk and the way that punk actually works, and I come out looking like an ass.

I want to try out an idea, here. You’ll know by now that I spend an awful lot of time thinking about prog rock. To me, one of the watershed moments in the history of that music was a point somewhere in the 80s when a wave of ‘neo-prog’ bands emerged, playing music that was explicitly modelled after the prog of the prior decade. This, as opposed to working in the original spirit of progressive rock, which dealt with genre fusion and independent experimentation. There was never a prog ‘sound’ in the 70s. In the 80s, with bands like Marillion and IQ cribbing the aesthetic trappings of a few key bands, there suddenly was.

We could define this as the point where prog calcified into a ‘genre’ in the strictest sense — a category of music with a defined set of traits — rather than a ‘movement,’ or perhaps a ‘scene.’ The result, initially, was a lot of pretty formulaic music: quite the opposite of what King Crimson and Magma were trying to do. But more recently, bands like Opeth and the Mars Volta have found a way to use what they’ve learned from classic prog bands to create music that sounds distinctly different.

All of which is a self-indulgent aside leading up to this relevant insight: clearly, something similar has happened to punk. Punk was a scene or movement prior to becoming a proper genre, and the aesthetics of that genre (as opposed to the ethics of the movement that produced it) have been stripped for parts and used for various purposes with varying degrees of relation to the original source.

One of those purposes turns out to be writing pop songs. And I do love me some pop songs.

So, you’re batting two for two in terms of punk assignments that worked out. However, I suspect that I remain one of the least punk rock people that either of us know. And that is unlikely to change…?

To be continued.

— Matthew

The Offspring: Americana (pt. 1)

americana

Dear Matthew:

It’s summertime, and for me, few albums encapsulate the feeling of summertime than The Offspring’s Americana.

Americana is not the Offspring’s fan-agreed magnum opus; that would be 1994’s Smash, an album that is still the top-selling independent record of all time.* Coming hot on the heels of the complete and utter musical paradigm shift that was Nirvana’s Nevermind, the Offspring’s third full-length album — their second on the legendary Epitaph Records — catapulted them to stardom on the backs of two very angsty, 90sy singles, ‘Come Out and Play‘ and ‘Self Esteem‘. You can almost smell the righteous youthful rage coming out of the speakers, cutting through the tinny drums and poorly-recorded guitars. It’s a dynamite record.

But you’re not listening to Smash. Instead, you’re joining the band four years later. The Offspring are now huge, and Americana is their second major-label album (Columbia signed them almost immediately after Smash blew up). 1997’s Ixnay on the Hombre was almost a sort of second ‘difficult sophomore album’ for them as they learned the ropes of an entire new way of making music, but by 1998, they’ve got it down. Frontman Dexter Holland has changed his signature hairstyle, and the band is riding high on the rise of a comparatively new trend: pop-punk. Bands like blink-182, Sum 41 and other combinations of single syllables and several numerals take the fast, frenetic aesthetic of California hardcore and skate punk, and then sing pop songs — generally about things other pop songs are about, like girls and how uncool your parents are. (In hindsight, it’s actually a totally weird moment in music history. But I guess it’s not the first time the mainstream has made a mint co-opting and sanitizing music it finds scary.)

Americana is a fascinating album. It’s got what are arguably the Offspring’s two biggest, poppiest hits, ‘Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)‘ and ‘Why Don’t You Get a Job?‘, but it also starts with a fantastic one-two punch of very old-school SoCal angst punk jams. Like most Offspring material, the album is dripping with irony and disaffection, the title track an angry tirade against everything twisted and wrong with modern America. Even the aforementioned poppy singles are sarcasm-laced takedowns of hateable characters and the trends they embody. The album closer is a jammy psychedelic number that was actually recorded for Ixnay, but shelved because the label thought it was too jammy and psychedelic. Like all of the Offspring’s best albums, it’s an album — it’s a cohesive package, not just a collection of songs. (Solidifying this notion are the various interstitial soundbites of automation and technology — only 90s kids will remember having a landline answering machine!) It’s even got that staple of CDs in the 90s, the hidden-track-after-several-minutes-of-silence. Sure, Smash may be their best record, but Americana is their most interesting.

I brought up Nevermind earlier for a good reason: in addition to its fundamental reshaping of the entire landscape of popular music, it’s generally heralded as a sort of cultural signpost of the 90s, a musical encapsulation of the malaise, alienation and nihilism of an entire generation. (Has anyone from Grantland written a really good essay about this to link to? Or Chuck Klosterman, maybe?) I put it to you that what Nevermind is to the early 90s (or perhaps more to the point, the post-80s), Americana is to the late 90s. It’s a musical time capsule in the same way, but instead of chronicling the start of a movement, it chronicles its effects. If Nevermind created Generation X, then Americana is the result of the theory put into practice for the better part of a decade.

I dunno, maybe I’m being a little grandiose. I mean, it’s just a pop-punk album. But either way, for my money, Americana is as close as you can get to reliving the 1990s until they invent an actual time machine.

— Matt

* This record will probably never be broken, because people don’t buy music anymore.

NoMeansNo: Wrong (pt. 2)

wrong

Dear Matt,

Here is a crude summary of my feelings about punk.

I spent a long time hating punk entirely on principle, having heard none. I hated it for its attitude — for the notion that striving for excellence was somehow beside the point. I hated it for thinking that three chords were enough. I hated it for killing prog, which is ridiculous because it didn’t.

At the same time, I’ve always had a certain amount of respect for any counterculture. There are echoes of the hippies and glam rockers in punk, and there was a political situation that needed to be shouted at. I didn’t like how punk treated the prog rock “dinosaurs” as establishment symbols with no regard for how transgressive and countercultural those bands were in their own way, but the foundation was solid.

Basically, I’ve always admired punk for being angry about Thatcher — but I’ve always been suspicious of it for being angry about Yes.

I realize that all of this extends from an untenable way of thinking. Because, the punk I’m talking about here is not a version of punk that exists in a meaningful way. It’s a sort of textbook-defined, Platonic ideal ur-punk. (Basically, it’s the Sex Pistols.) As always, the real thing is messier and more complex. “Angry about Thatcher” isn’t a useful epithet when you’re talking about, say, a band from Victoria.

You may be interested to know that this is in fact not the first punk album I’ve heard straight through — it’s the second. The first was London Calling, as orthodox a punk selection as is available. And even that experience confronted me with the vast difference between my imagined punk and real punk.

Here was music with a certain amount of discipline. Restraint, even. The lyrics were thoughtful. The arrangements had been fussed over. Even after four sides of it, I didn’t feel like my precious aesthetic values had been disputed.

So, no. I don’t have a legitimate ideological conflict with punk. A personality clash, maybe. Punk likes to read Marx and get angry. I like to read Shakespeare comedies and chuckle to myself. Punk is freewheeling and likes being in rooms full of shouty people. I am fairly buttoned-up and like being in libraries. Punk thinks that breaking rules is a good idea. I was raised to be suspicious of people like that.

I don’t know if Rob and John Wright are people like that or not. I suspect both of them could have earned a decent crust playing jazz — that most regimented of spontaneous art forms — and I have no doubt that they spent countless hours honing their craft. Rob’s bass playing reminds me of Chris Squire and John Wetton, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that Nomeansno are King Crimson fans.

They also have a song called ‘Big Dick.’

I loved every fucking second of this album.

—Matthew

NoMeansNo: Wrong (pt. 1)

wrong

Dear Matthew:

I promised you that this project would involve you listening to some punk rock. The time has come. But fear not — I’m going to ease you into it. This week, you’ll be listening to NoMeansNo‘s seminal 1989 opus, Wrong.

It’s actually kind of hilarious that I’m using the word ‘ease’ in the same paragraph as NoMeansNo; they’re about the most challenging punk rock band I can think of. They’re mathy and jazzy and even sometimes a little proggy — words that are kind of hilarious to find in the same paragraph as ‘punk rock’ — but they’re also thrashy and angry and they infuse everything they do with an absolutely pitch-black sense of humour. So, the way I see it, they’re built on the bedrock of everything that’s great about punk rock, but they approach it with — well, with an approach to the craft that you’ll find more palatable.

At its core, NoMeansNo is the brothers Rob and John Wright, on bass/vocals and drums respectively. The pair from Victoria, BC, though the band is now based in Vancouver. Over the years, guitar and backup vocal duties have been handled by Andy Kerr (as they are on Wrong), and later by Tom Holliston, but unlike most punk rock, the guitar is mostly just flavour; Rob is definitely the frontman, his basslines always the musical main-mast. Live, the three play side by side on stage — with John facing Rob, so the audience gets a good look at John’s playing.

Here’s another thing about NoMeansNo: they’re old. Like, I’m pretty sure they’re older than my dad. That said, they continue to rock harder than any band of their vintage that you care to name, and they’re still putting out good records; 2006’s All Roads Lead to Ausfahrt is in a dead heat with Wrong for my favourite of theirs. I mean, I guess when you’re a band for 36 years, you get pretty good at playing with each other, but these guys all had the chops from the beginning — and they can still shred every lick just as hard as the day it was recorded. In case I haven’t made myself clear: if you get an opportunity to see them play, take it. I only hope I can rock half that hard when I’m that old.

Wrong itself is interesting for a lot of reasons. For one, the title is probably the clearest example of the ‘(W)right’/’wrong’-based wordplay in which in the band frequently engages. Rob was recovering from vocal chord nodules at the time, so it’s atypical in that it features a lot of vocals from then-guitarist Kerr. It’s also probably the best cross-section of the various things the band is capable of musically. There are short, old-school punk rock rippers like ‘Two Lips, Two Lungs and One Tongue’; sludgy, sprawling epics like the album closer ‘I Am Wrong’; and whatever you’d call the madness that is ‘Big Dick’. Wrong is all over the map, and I love it.

If you can’t get into punk rock, then hey, you can’t get into punk rock. I know it’s not for everyone. But for a man of your particular tastes, this is the best possible gateway drug I can think of. If this doesn’t work, I don’t know if anything will.

— Matt