Good albums of 2017, part 3

The Dollyrots – Whiplash Splash

Whiplash Splash

One time when I saw these guys somebody called out one of their super old songs, and Kelly was like “Hmm, I don’t think our drummer knows that one. She could probably do it though, it’s just like the dumbest possible punk song,” and Luis goes “Well, yeah, that’s all our songs.” It’s certainly true that, from a modern perspective, where every random asshole is a classically-trained historically-informed avant-garde revolutionary, The Dollyrots are an extraordinarily dumb-sounding band. The naive fervor of their devotion to the most mundane and trivial aspects of their genre make it difficult to understand them as anything other than a joke. Which is exactly what they said about the Ramones.

The truth is that looking dumb and being dumb are not the same thing, and “Just Because I’m Blonde” directly addresses this very topic. The song is indeed a broadside against “dumb blonde” stereotypes, which initially seems ridiculous. No one actually thinks that blonde people are dumb; the entire thing about blonde jokes is that they’re a parody of stereotype-based humor. Except that isn’t really the case; the reason tropes like this endure is precisely because people really do adhere to them on a deep ideological level, despite how ludicrous they appear on the surface. The fact that people say they’re “joking” about things like this belies the fact that they care enough to bother in the first place. More importantly, I lied when I said “blonde people“; what these jokes actually are is sexism dressed up as triviality. The presumption of good faith is based on the assumption that no one is “really” sexist, that everyone “means well” in spite of their actual behavior. Superficiality – pointing out that “it’s just hair, don’t be dumb” – is not a retreat, but an accurate defense against this. (Also, I’m not overinterpreting this; if you require corroboration, there’s a non-album B-side called “Get Radical” that proves it.)

So the fact that the song also sounds dumb, that its rambly lyrics and singsong chorus make the singer come across as an actual ditz, reveals the true nature of the opposition: looking like a moron while making an incontrovertibly true point is preferable to play-acting depth while being, on the merits, a dumbfuck. This resolved contradiction defines the band’s entire body of work (their previous album has a hardcore song about being pregnant, which sounds completely silly, until you realize that pregnancy really is the most hardcore thing), and it’s on its fullest display here. There’s actually a fair diversity of emotional states, anchored in sentiments as simple as “I Do” and “Squeeze Me” (and of course “Dance Like a Maniac”), rendered all the more faithfully for being cartoonishly blown up and garishly colored. It’s pretty fast, but it’s actually propelled forward by complex and thoughtful production, layered with precisely applied backing vocals and stabbed through with shouts and breaks. It sticks to its guns, but also fully explores its possibility space – in other contexts this is called “minimalism,” which reminds us that complexity and nuance, while assumed to be indicators of underlying intelligence, can just as easily be used to disguise the fact that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Hence why the album ends with a joke song and a joke cover, neither of which is a joke: because joking is the most serious thing you can do. The mermaid, which would appear to be an arbitrary reference, is in fact central to the point. It’s a creature of two worlds that registers as a single entity, a living reconciled contradiction. Mermaid mythology continues to resonate because it’s immediately comprehensible even in the face of making no sense. Just so, this album is a mess of goofiness and also exactly what it says on the label: a message in a bottle that is also a molotov.


 

Nothington – In The End

In the End

As you know, punk’s original sin is its fealty to masculinity. This caused what was supposed to be a new vector for unmediated authentic expression to too often congeal into a reification of established prejudices. There have been, y’know, developments since then, but it’s still an active issue. Specifically, emo was supposed to expand the available emotions in hardcore music, but as a result of precisely this issue, it ended up regressing into an even more immature and whiny expression of the same old resentful masculinity. And while there are a lot more actual rapists around than anyone really wants to admit, in a lot of cases this isn’t even totally fair: you can just be “trying to be honest with yourself for the first time” and doing what you know and what feels right to you, but wind up with people understanding you in exactly the opposite of the way you intend (ask Kurt Cobain about this sometime). At the same time, this isn’t magic either (sin don’t real), which means you haven’t lost until you actually lose: it’s always within your ability to turn the existing situation to your advantage, to get around people and thereby get through to them, to make aesthetics do what they’re supposed to (you can also ask Kurt Cobain about this). This album threads the needle.

It doesn’t do this though any special cleverness; it really is gruff and masculine in exactly the way you’d expect. But its honest negativity succeeds in navigating both the emo trap and the broader minefield of easy emotional resolution. It’s heavy with guitar noise, but it pushes the vocals way out in front instead of burying them. The effect is somewhat subtle – it doesn’t turn the songs into pop sing-alongs (these people are not singers), but it provides the emotional agility needed to slip out of stereotypical interpretations. This turns the framework inside out: the melancholy is right up front while the aggressive in-your-face aspect is ironically tucked into the background. There’s a very specific example of how this works: the lyric “I wish I could win you back, so I could put you in the ground” represents, in literal terms, exactly the sort of pain-to-resentment-to-violence progression that’s so long plagued this form of expression (exemplified by the Ramones’ “Glad to See You Go”). But with the way it actually sounds in the song, with its tumbling rhythm and desperate emptiness, it ultimately fails to read as violent or even angry. It’s an expression of self-loathing that the music simply holds on to, leaving it exactly as it is, refusing to let it resolve itself into any more comfortable form. It displays its heart on its sleeve as openly as any raw folk ballad, such that the immediate sheen of aggressiveness gives way to a reality of basic honesty, struggle, and pain.


 

Wavves – You’re Welcome

You're Welcome

Have you guys heard of this band Wavves? They’re pretty underground. Anyway, this one’s at least weird enough to be interesting. Staring with the loopy squeal that opens the album, it augments the usual nihilism (“the whole world covered in gasoline, and burning alive”) with enough odd effects and awkward progressions to transform it into something very close to outright clownishness. The result is that it’s impossible to tell whether ending the album with a hackneyed pop song (though one that’s still mutated by overcrowded production) called “I Love You” qualifies as parody or reconciliation, but the suggestion seems to be that what ultimately makes the most sense – perhaps the only thing that makes any sense – is to understand it as both.


 

The Two Tens – On Repeat

On Repeat

This is absolutely as straightforward as it gets. It’s a music album, which is made of songs. It has guitars and drums and catchy choruses. The contents are exactly 50% rock and 50% roll. It has cute lyrics about relationships that turn out to be deeply negative when you look closely. It’s masterful on the level of raw sound, and skilled songwriting only fuels its intensity. It almost defies you to even comment on it, since it insists so forcefully on its own raw experience, but I’m totally going to anyway. What it ultimately does, in this age of barbaric decadence, is remind you why anyone ever considered “rock music” to be a category of any significance in the first place. It’s because there really has been something there all along: at the same time that it’s brash and animalistic, it’s vulnerable, and its naivete is entirely conscious (“Friends” is literally just about having friends, but that’s because having friends is actually really important). The basic human condition is in fact not one of transparent simplicity, but one of noise and contradiction. “I’m not alright, but it’s alright to be not alright.” So there you have it. Rock and roll will never die, and neither will pretentious dilettantism. We’re just going to have to learn to live with one another.


 

Dude York – Sincerely

Sincerely

While it isn’t particularly wise to read all that much into titles, this actually is a significant entry in the Sincerity Wars. Its bratty vocals, jaunty rhythms, and post-garage guitars perfectly embody the expected aesthetics of glib disengagement (people sometimes refer to this as “irony,” because they have no idea what that word means). But just as soon as it defies you to take it seriously, it challenges you to actually do it. There’s a story song about being institutionalized, and the biggest rocker on the album is a treatise on social anxiety and/or physical mediation (“I want to communicate, but I’m paralyzed”). “Love Is” isn’t jaded dismissiveness, it’s a exploration of how overpromised ideals actually end up functioning on the ground. It is the fact of the matter that, even if you really like someone and you fully commit yourself to them, you still end up with nothing, and then that’s all there is. So if you’re going to engage with the topic at all, rather than escape into fantasy, you have to start there and see where it’s possible to go. “I might be wrong, but at least I’m sure that you’re not right.” This is the opposite of being too cool for school: the singer outlines all the reasons it doesn’t matter, and then goes for it anyway: “It’s toxic, but I’ll dive in.” This only comes across as a reverse feint due to ideological pollution. Sincerity isn’t a magic formula that you have to put together in exactly the right way in order for the spell to take hold. It’s not magic, which means it takes a variety of physical forms and comes across differently at different times – and reads differently to different people. There’s no silver bullet, and you’re never “done”; what being engaged means is actually engaging with things. Even when they’re simplistic, even when they’re unoriginal, and even when they’re jokes.

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