Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Record Review: Ben Weasel and His Iron String Quartet - These Ones Are Bitter

Once the churlish tsar of pop punk, the years have tempered the once notoriously prickly demeanour of Ben Weasel. What started with Screeching Weasel's 'Emo' back in 1998, Weasel has slowly eased up on the vitriol, years of shit-stirring and idiot-baiting in the pages of MRR and on record left him segregated from most of the punk rock public and ended with him detached from and disdainful of his fanbase.

Weasel was largely unheard of in the intervening years between his last solo album - 2002's Fidatevi - and 2007 (save for the briefly resurrected Riverdales' 2003 album Phase Three), occasionally popping up on his blog to set the cat amongst the piegons, but nothing was heard from him musically. During that same period pop punk experienced something of a resurgence in popularity. In the midwest the likes of the Copyrights and Teenage Bottlerocket were still chewin' out a rhythm while in New York and New Jersey, bands like the Steinways, the Unlovablesa and For Science crept out of the genre's cradle. This point was exemplified by the explosion of the annual Insubordination Records pop punk festival.

As these bands enjoyed a boom in popularity, so did their precursors, namely Screeching Weasel. This was despite the band playing nary a live show since 1996, and so the band built up somewhat of a mythical reputation. Curiously, many of the band's fans had never even seem them play live.

In the American summer of 2007 however Weasel announced he would collaborate with longtime admirer and All-American Rejects guitarist Mike Kennerty to produce his latest solo record, 'These Ones Are Bitter'. When it was announced AAR drummer Chris Gaylor and the Alkaline Trio's Dan Amdriano would round out the 'Iron String Quartet', many pop punk purists turned up their noses at the suggestion members of the much maligned A3 and AAR would play on a Ben Weasel record. While some would consider those bands middle-of-the-road rock, their influence is inescapable.

Anyone expecting another 'My Brain Hurts' or 'Anthem For A New Tomorrow' would be sadly mistaken. And I'll admit I was one of them. Screeching Weasel's brand of economic, past-paced, hook-filled Ramones-core pop punk is my bread and butter. 'These Ones...' is a taught, slickly-produced, punk-influenced, melodic rock record, something in between 'Fidatevi' and 'Anthem For A New Tomorrow'. While Screeching Weasel were famed for their no-frills song writing, 'These Ones...' represents a musical shift for Weasel, reflecting more dense arrangements, layers of additional instruments and a diversion from straight up and down 1-4-5 chord progressions.

It took me a while to realise the strength of some of the song arrangements. On first listen of 'Happy Saturday', I dismissed it as mostly forgettable. After my second I found myself humming the line "In the Garden of Eden baby, don't you know that I'm changing all the locks," from the song's bridge. While having drinks with a friend that night, I was sprung singing the line under my breath and tapping along to the tune on the bar top, branded a hypocrite having five minutes prior expressed indifference to the record. And it all unfolded like a pack of cards.

The Garden of Eden line - also one of the best Ben Weasel lines ever - represents the numerous hooks that litter the album once it's allowed to sink in, seen in songs like the ass-kicking 'In A Few Days', 'The First Day of Spring' and the album's excellent penultimate tune 'In A Bad Place', the closest thing Weasel will ever come to writing a funeral dirge.

A lot has also been made of the fact the record was released in digital format only except for a small run of vinyl. As Weasel explained on his blog, increasing music piracy and the hefty overheads of physical records led to his decision to release an mp3 exclusive album. I'm not sure I can add anything to the debate except that in the nine months since its release I'm yet to purchase this record, and it remains the only Ben Weasel album I don't own.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice review. I recommend that, you should buy the album. I wasn't crazy about the record at first (I was hopping for My Brain Hurts 2.0 just like you). But it it really grew on me and it sounds terrific on vinyl.

11:53 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home