Friday, May 18, 2007

Holy Cow (an addendum)

In my post about 10 albums at least 10 years old, I made a couple of unforgivable omissions, which I will nevertheless try to make amends for here. And, in the spirit of camaraderie, I will dedicate the first omission to Girdo and the second to Mikkele and Josh. Sorry, friends. (On the other hand, no one called me out on these omissions, so you could be considered culpable, too…)

Silverchair, Frogstomp
Does anyone else remember hearing this album in 1995 and thinking, “These guys are only a couple years older than me?” I know I do. This amazement was tempered by reading an interview a couple years later where frontman Daniel Johns explained each track on the album, mostly with variations of, “This song is about something I saw on TV.” Regardless, Frogstomp was never an amazing album in and of itself; it was, however, amazing that a bunch of bored 15-year-olds created the thing, let alone in the oft-ignored musical landscape of Australia.

Winning the chance to make a record through a radio contest, Silverchair knew there were no guarantees after this album so they strove to make it count. Opening slowly with the bass line of “Israel’s Son,” the track culminated in punk rock thrashing before segueing into the radio hit “Tomorrow.” Songs like “Pure Massacre” and “Undecided” wear their Nirvana influences on their sleeve, but others such as “Shade” and “Suicidal Dream” show a remarkable level of restraint before still-inevitable explosive conclusions.

The genius of the album is in its focus and consistency. For better or worse, every album since has seen the band trying to prove that they are more (or different) than a straight-ahead rock band, but to no avail. Freak Show tried too hard to upstage Frogstomp, and subsequent releases tried to rock tangentially, but the highlights of every Silverchair album are when they simply let loose and ROCK.

Songwriting is nothing without proper presentation, and here again Frogstomp shines brighter than its competitors and successors. Recorded in nine days, it contains a frenetic energy that is palpable even in slow and subdued moments. The drums are big and loud, sometimes threatening to break apart and wash away in the swell of their own sound. The guitars are raw and generic, but this helps their cause by furthering the “we just came from our garage” aesthetic.
Sure, the lyrics are wholly banal and forgettable, but they were still groundbreaking to a generation of kids who were playing guitar in their bedroom and trying to think of a rhyme for “girl” other than “world.” Young bands were still relatively few and far between in 1995, and Silverchair were HUGE. More than anything else, Frogstomp was the sound of possibility and dreams coming true, which is why the band’s career is a disappointment from that point on; honestly, where do you go from there?

Five Iron Frenzy, Upbeats and Beatdowns (Nov. 1996); Our Newest Album Ever! (Nov 1997)
Good lord, how could I leave these out? I must have hit my head or something…
The O.C. Supertones were the first huge Christian ska band, but 6 months after the release of their debut album, Five Iron Frenzy snuck up and clobbered them. Whereas the Supertones looked back to 1st and 2nd wave ska and tried to punk it up, FIF took everything current and added upstrokes and horns. Upbeats and Beatdowns was a goofy celebration, but one which never got boring or redundant. Punk songs like “Old West,” “Arnold and Willis and Mr. Drummond” and a cover of Amy Grant’s “Everywhere I Go” were offset by slower numbers like “Faking Life” and “Amalgamate,” as well as complicated rockers like “Beautiful America” and “Third World Think Tank.” The album’s strongest points are separated, one on each end, on the equal-parts wild and worshipful “Where the Zero Meets the Fifteen” and “A Flowery Song.” The Supertones may have been the latest band to make Christianity a little bit hipper, but Five Iron got kids singing the Doxology.

While serious issues were an FIF staple from the beginning (literally, as “Old West,” the album opener, was about mistreatment of American Indians during the settlement of the west), so was goofiness; but while the Supertones and other ska bands seemed to create a calculated goofiness, Five Iron’s was spontaneous and real, showing through in songs like “Combat Chuck” and the aforementioned “Arnold…” as well as the 4-second, self-explanatory “Shut Up.”

While Upbeats and Beatdowns was a phenomenal debut, the “sophomore slump” has been known to affect even the greatest of bands (I’m looking at you, Craig’s Brother), so the release of FIF’s second effort, Our Newest Album Ever!, was anticipated by many with equal parts excitement and nervousness. Lucky for us, it was arguably the band’s BEST album ever.

Released a year after their debut, Our Newest Album Ever! was light-years beyond it in multiple respects. Already forgoing punk rhythms for the more straight-ahead rock that would dominate their later albums, there was also a reduction in the amount of traditional ska upstrokes, acknowledgment that the fad that was originally their friend was quickly fading. What was more present was mature (yet still catchy) songwriting, and the strongest batch of lyrics the band ever produced. Though still goofy (witness “Kitty Doggy,” “Oh, Canada” or “Where Is Micah?”), the overall tone was much more serious, with songs touching on subjects as diverse as divorce, racial injustice, the futility of life, the futility of greed, and general roadweariness – yet remaining hopeful throughout.

Whereas Upbeats and Beatdowns had more than its fair share of high points, Our Newest Album Ever! was a steady succession of them, culminating in the definitive FIF song (and perennial concert-closer) “Every New Day,” a song which starts somber and sad yet finishes triumphant.

While 3rd wave ska seemed to come and go quicker than most fads, Five Iron Frenzy were able to adapt and succeed; their musical talent and knack for writing memorable songs assured them a place even long after the rude boys had disappeared or morphed into punks, goths and emos. Their early albums paved the way for these transitions, which is why they remain listenable even now.

*Music Irritant of the Week: A commercial is currently on TV with Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” as the background music; but when a voice starts singing, it is simply a female voice singing “la la la” over and over, to the same melody and cadence as the original song. How dare they.


Ek said...

Good call on both of those...although I wouldn't refer to it as "calling you out" per se, I will mention that Travis and I both listed some other albums we liked from that era in the comments, and for that matter, I'm pretty sure Frogstomp made my list...

travis said...

what happened to the fridayly posts? it has been almost a month my friend. and what better day to start back up again, than friday the 13th, eh? i miss you man and loved the message you left me. i'll be in touch.