:: Article

Vowel Movements

By Graham Rae.

swmanifesto

First World Manifesto, Screeching Weasel (Fat Wreck Chords, 2011)

Screeching Weasel was a slop-bop pop-punk band that existed from 1986 to 2000 that I listened to from first album to last. At their bedrock sonic core-fore were singer/songwriter/guitarist Ben ‘Weasel’ Foster and guitarist John ‘Jughead’ Pierson. With an ever-changing satellite roster of musical collaborators/extreme personalities revolving around them, the duo produced album after album of funny, spiky, questioning, sarcastic, bitter, vitriolic songs with a signature sound that went on to help define an upcoming mainstream generation, and that would be stolen for extreme financial gain by the likes of the tedious Blink-182 or All-American Rejects. Much to the chagrin, I would imagine, of their exploited-sonics progenitors, who were really just reheating The Ramones much of the time anyway.

And despite having gotten back together, Screeching Weasel is still dead and buried. And always will be.

The dynamics behind the deformed reformation of this long-scrapped musical vehicle are really quite simple. It seems to me that Ben Foster is broke and doesn’t want to work a dayjob (or quite simply can’t do so after decades in the punk bewilderness), a couple of subpar solo albums he put out didn’t go anywhere, and he still has a brand in Screeching Weasel that he can try to squeeze a few more bucks out of from kids in awe of the band’s seminal headspinspirational pop-punk rep. So he got a hold of a paycut Danny ‘Vapid’ Schafer, who co-wrote the songs on the band’s absolutely superb 1991 album My Brain Hurts, a few starry-eyed youngstars in their twenties (Foster is now ledge-edging towards his middle forties), ditched a mightily unimpressed John Pierson for cost-too-much reasons (I am not exactly sure of the financial freewheeling and dealing that has gone on in the reformation of the group, but heard from at least one former member of the band face-to-face that there were ‘a lot of underhand things going on’ there), and decided to put out First World Manifesto. I nearly wrote Third instead of First, which may give you an idea of my take on the whole thing, or a large part thereof.

And speaking of, and starting with the title, which is pretty pretentious, misleading and somewhat stupid, you would think with a portentous demonising moniker like that you might be getting a politicool agitprop do-or-diatribe about the unveiled evils of late ingrate crapitalism and its insidious invidious effects on us all in this day and cage. Well, you certainly don’t get that. Despite the odd foray here and there into ribtickle politicking schtick, SW were a deftly apolitical organism mostly geared up towards Ben Weasel’s rank crank-yanking cranky anger and navel-gazing and agoraphobic looselippy solipsism. This album is no different. There is only one song on it that could be regarded as in any way political, the excellent ‘Come and See the Violence Inherent in the System’ (a title lifted, of course, from Monty Python and the Holy Grail), and it’s a tired, standard retreading of the usual apoliticopunk rambleranting about America being a police state full of fat NASCAR fans run by sociopathic corporate scum. Which is absolutely true, but it’s hardly an original thought. Not that there actually is such a thing as an original thought, or even a thought period, during the whole running (for the money) time. At least a song or two do exhibit a bit of a sense of humour, something the band used to have in spades before Foster started taking himself too seriously, with the humour being something that initially attracted me to them.

But it’s not the late 80s anymore. Things move on and trends and times and tides wait for no man or musical movement.

Speaking of musical and vowel movements, some of the singing on this album is absolutely toe-curlingly terrible. Foster was never much of a singer, but disguised his whelpyelpy earbelty tendencies when younger with energy and verve and sonic sleight of hand and ear. There are some moments on this album when he tries to hit high notes (‘Dry is the Desert’) and you just genuinely cringe. He has been accused in the past of sounding too much like Fat Mike of NOFX. There is a song on the fine-in-parts 1993 SW album Anthem For a New Tomorrow where both singers ululate on the same song as a sort of joke, and you can hardly tell them apart. Nowhere has that ever been truer than on this album. There are a lot of moments where, both musically and vocally, you could swear you were listening to NOFX. This is not a good thing, but understandable, as Manifesto has been released on Fat Wreck Chords, Fat Mike’s label, and they often put out tedious ten-a-penny NOFX-soundalike bland bands. I just never expected to hear it in Screeching Weasel, is all.

screechinweasel

But as I said before, this band is not the old band. The main insurmountable and huge difference here is in the lame lamentable endgame-changing non-inclusion of John Pierson’s beautyfuel guitar. Weasel and Jughead were the band, and without Jughead this whole poser-pouty quiet-shout-outing amounts to less than zero. There are guitar riffs here where whoever is playing (could look it up but can’t be bothered – probably some Chicago stringstrummer scenester) is trying their level best to impersonate the trademark amazing Jughead laughsound and I just wasn’t convinced for a second. It’s in incredibly poor taste, to me, to have some kid try and copy one of your oldest friends after you froze him out of the band. Jughead’s guitar flowed; the guitar here is stutter-stoppy-starty, cuts off where it should be swooping and soaring and laughing and stingsinging, and it just never works the way it should.

Quick liner note on the cover: garish garbage, merely rehashing the 1988 cover for the fine Weasel album Boogadaboogadaboogada! I would assume this is Foster trying to say that band-brand is back open for business, or is trying to get back to its roots or something, but it simply doesn’t work and comes across as artistically bankrupt.

Quick word about the production: it’s well-produced. Some Foster-fawning guy from All-American Rejects did it. Who cares.

And as for lyrics. Well, Weasel always fancied himself as a writer, despite not ever producing much wordwork of any real import (I used to love his columns for punk zine Maximum Rocknroll in the early 90s), though he did write some fine lyrics here and there, and this album is no better. As he grew longer in the tooth and lost his youth and realised more and more the truth of the Peter Pan youthscam of punk (as a woman I used to know put it, real punks died young – if you didn’t, you were something else), his once-funny lyrics often became nothing but attacks on young punks and singing about his own confused bemusing quasi-religious quests for a meaning of life. The godbotherer rubbish is thankfully gone on this (re)production (though Foster is now a Christian with weird rightwing views I don’t claim to comprehend, and can’t relate to his younger incarnation), but the other familiar Weasel themes are still there, all unpleasantly present and incorrect and boring: sad mad bad punk chicks and attacks on the punk scene. Yawn. As the man himself put it in 1991 in ‘Crying in my Beer’: “If you were a TV show baby you would have been canceled / due to declining viewership / recycled plots and bad acting.” And I have to give a special mention here to one of the worst lyrics I have ever heard: Foster sings “Avert thine eyes of pity” when singing about some crap relationship, and to me anybody that uses words like ‘thine’, well, I’m sure you can imagine what I think.

But then maybe not which is why I’m telling you now and then we move on and inward and downward to the not-entirely-denouncing denouement. If I’m being perfectly honest, a personal fault of mine, I would have to say that I actually really like about half this album on a soundswipe level at least. It’s definitely not SW, but for what it is, unoriginal three-chord junkpunk robbed of much of its force by the many bands who have come and used it in Screeching Weasel’s wake (and even before their existence), it’s actually pretty damned good in a pay-and-display throw-it-my-way throwaway play-way. It bounces, it throbs, it robs you of boredom and then you forget all about it five minutes later.

There is genuinely only one song on this whole album where Weasel or Foster or whatever sounds as if he is actually poignantly enraged and engaged with the subject matter and how he is singing, the great ‘Beginningless Vacation,’ a song I shamefacedly confess to having air-guitared to. Here he snarls and snaps and yaps and slaps and scraps and escapes the dry dead dregs of the tacky black hole of the uninterested faux-breastpounder rest of the album, sounding like he fucking means it. And there is a very obvious, clear reason for this. The song is an escape velocity fantasy from a middle-aged man caged by his family-life-stage and he wants away from the strife and wife and kids so he can do ‘crazy things’ and be young and wild and free all over again instead of being old and mild and twee. Being a 41-year-old father, I can relate. But the recordbuyer (or free-downloader) teenybop kids can’t comprehend, which is why here Weasel writes a load of pisspoor Emo songs about girlies or crap they can understand. And it just comes off as poor warmed-over never-shoulda-been-released energy-decreased-to-deceased trash.

It’s not 1991 anymore and the world is not the same place that it was, good or bad or ugly fucking truth of the meat of the matter. Ben ‘Weasel’ Foster is a middle-aged man with two very young (under three, but I’m not sure of their exact age) children, and will never again be able to rapturously trap or capture the SW young free swinging-singles-releasing vibe that the band once had. You can’t go home again, as the old Thomas Wolfe book title put it. None of us can, as scary and exhilarating and depressing a thought as that is. And? That’s life and life and life and life and life for the eternal living and dying a death forever. Maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on a middle-aged man who needs to feed his family; after all, we all need to make a living. I suppose I’m just so down on this because this band were my own ridiculously-obsessed-over fave meatybeat combo for many a Scottish year. But that was a long time ago in a country far, far away over the Atlantic.

And that’s it. R.I.P. Screeching Weasel, even as you play and put out more records. You will and will not be missed. And good luck to Ben Foster in fatherhood. That’s real punk shit and real life, never mind the musings and abusive machinations of young loud snotty gutsprayer next-gen wannabe-anarchaotic fools.

And well now
that’s all
there is
to
it.

Addendum: This piece was written a few days before Ben Foster punched two women at the SXSW music festival in Texas on 3/18/2011. It was a shameful, volatile, ridiculous, disgusting incident that has been debated at great and grating length amongst the chattering pop-punk classes on the net, so I’ll just say this: it reinforced even more that it’s time for Foster to hang up his sonic spurs, especially as his whole band resigned in protest at his fight clubbing. Seeing a 43-year-old father and husband behave like a mentally unbalanced self-destructive misogynist redneck is a depressing and disturbing, and even boring, thing. His fuck-the-scene-and-music-biz hate-everybody-and-everything-but-really-hate-himself schtick now is so old it will be getting bundled senile and drooling and gibbering into a retirement home for antediluvian tedium soon. Bye Ben. Fifteen minutes and counting…

grahamrae

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
As of this review, Graham Rae is officially designating himself as being way too old for something as bloody stupid as punk music.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 24th, 2011.