THOUGH IT'S NO LONGER A MAJOR INFLUENCE on America's youth, keeping them out of corporate boardrooms and law schools, punk rock has spawned a vital network of bands, clubs, zines and record labels that operate mostly independently of the music industry and usually without a profit motive.
Local punk-specific stores like Head Line Records, Zed Records and Destroy All Music are likely spots to find the following from a thriving scene that remains idealistic regardless of prevailing trends.
Refused: The Shape of Punk To Come (Burning Heart/Epitaph)
Dapper-suit-wearing, mop-topped anarchists from Sweden, Refused spew forth ultra-intense, rabid-dog-style hardcore complete with dazzling melodies, experimental guitar flourishes, gorgeous short electronic pieces and relatively complex (for punks) chord progressions. There's some Nation of Ulysseslike sloganeering in the lyrics, which are mostly of the “capitalism is organized crime” variety and decent enough for a band writing songs in a second language. “Liberation Frequency” is a groovy pirate-radio anthem with a sing-along chorus, while “Worms of the Senses/Faculties of the Skull” is an irate “humans are not commodities”-style rant that sounds like it could've been mixed by DJ Shadow. One can only imagine what Refused were like in concert, 'cause the band dissolved just after this record came out.
The Crumbs: Low and Behold (Lookout!)
The Southern-fried punk rock of Florida's Crumbs is a scrumptious, irresistible thing, doused with rockabilly leads that will sear your tongue, boogie-woogie chords that will have your ass shaking like an impaled water moccasin, and Wild Turkeyinspired swagger that will knock you off your barstool, through the window and into an alligator's waiting jaws. Hunky Peruvian singer Raf Classic has one of the best voices in punk rock, and the Crumbs have nailed down a blues-and-bayou-enlivened sound that's meaner than an Alabama jail warden.
Jets to Brazil: Orange Rhyming Dictionary (Jade Tree)
Multiple pleasures of all sorts are to be found on Orange Rhyming Dictionary, from exquisite guitars to spellbinding songwriting to Blake Schwarzenbach's serene-not-strained voice. His old band, Jawbreaker, came out of the punk scene but developed a more accessible, refined sound before breaking up. This record will find more gooey-eyed fans falling under Schwarzenbach's spell. “Starry Configurations” features beautiful melodies piled atop one another and some fine, yearning vocals on tortured lyrics like “Why must you treat me like you do?/Don't you know it's all for you?” Most of Schwarzenbach's
words are bizarre poetic ramblings that come off as inter-esting but unintelligible. Indisputably, Schwarzenbach is one unhappy camper who has turned his whines into some extravagantly penned, magnificent music.
Radiobaghdad: 665 Neighbor of the Beast (Onefoot)
Genuine beer-swilling, horribly tattooed, scabies-spreading, change-bumming street punks who took the Greyhound from Iowa to Hollywood Boulevard and who really have a lot to be pissed off at in this world will fully appreciate Radiobaghdad, a band from Florida that sounds like Rollins-era Black Flag without the overly long songs. Singer Lester Norris' voice is gruffer than Rollins' and his lyrics are nearly as stupid, but you wouldn't want to be near the pit when these boozed-up vomit-spewers launch into “No Resurrection,” a song that will fling you across the room like an army of elephants chucking around a dead squirrel. These guys sound like unrepentant addicts on a final bender, dishing out all their demons before they jump off a bridge.
Bluetip: Join Us (Dischord)
Bluetip singer/guitarist Jason Farrell must not think very highly of himself, 'cause a lot of his songs, like “I Even Drive Like a Jerk,” are supercritical jabs at his own character, while others are about drinking, fighting and creepy bar patrons. Though almost all of the subject matter on Join Us is depressing, Bluetip's music is stirring stuff, packed with nifty choruses and rip-roaring guitars. These guys bear similarities to fellow D.C. post-punk/whatever bands like the Dismemberment Plan and Jawbox, whose Jay Robbins produced this choice record.
Rudimentary Peni: Echoes of Anguish EP (Outer Himalayan)
Pain and death are basically all Rudimentary Peni care about anymore. It's been 15 years since they released their indispensable masterpiece, Death Church, which dealt with issues like marriage, animal rights and organized religion from the band's unique gothic/anarchist perspective. But their latest, Echoes of Anguish, is purely morbid, with lyrics like “There is only death/No God/No love/No joy/Only death/and the fear of it.” The music sort of rocks on charming ditties like “The Flame of Insanity,” “In Memory of Pain” and “Womb So Scorned,” but lags on the B-side, though the lyrics, which also deal with betrayal, start to sound genuinely menacing. You'd think that a band that only comes out with a record every eon or so would pay more attention to detail, but Echoes of Anguish is too simplistic lyrically and musically to move anyone other than Peni's most hardcore, death-obsessed fans.
Hellworms: Crowd Repellent (Alternative Tentacles)
Hellworms have a lot in common with No Means No, such as a jazzy bass, a cynical-punk-from-the-old-days vocalist and the same record label. And they're exceptionally talented musicians, and even better songwriters. “Zillionaire” has an extremely catchy, bitter chorus — “No matter what you do/you're always working for the man” — while “Mercedes to Hades” is a million-mile-a-minute instrumental that shows off the band's musical prowess. The
lyrics and the sound are very San Francisco — outraged at the rest of the world, politically opinionated and slightly wanky, like a Haight Street bar band — but in a good way.
Seaweed: Actions and Indications (Merge)
Seaweed is an emocore band with gloomy lyrics you can make some sense of, rather than having to wade through their self-indulgence. Seaweed can also rock, as they do on the Fugazi-like anthem “Red Tape Parade” and on their fine and fitting cover of Joy Division's “Warsaw.” The band's two guitarists are skilled at devising portentous chords to go with songs about sad eyes, scars and bad luck, the best of which is the devastating “What Are We Taking?,” about completely giving up hope. Mostly, though, while the lyrics are somber, the music bolts at a slam pit's pace.
Screeching Weasel: Television City Dream (Fat Wreck Chords)
The undiluted snotty-punk Television City Dream is another classic Screeching Weasel record, following the band's brilliant EP Major Label Debut, which seemed at the time of its release as pissed-off and obnoxious as any record ever. Not so. Television City Dream is even more odious, and the lyrics even more biting, with leading punk-rock pundit Ben Weasel mouthing off on a variety of subjects, including his own rotten generation. On “We Are the Generation X,” he screams, “My generation is full of shit/My generation don't give a shit about nothing/My generation puts on an act/My generation will sell its ass like it's nothing/'cause my generation's nothing/My generation is fat and weak/My generation can barely speak without whining.” There's also “Dirty Needles,” a public-service announcement set to an infectious pop-punk beat that asks junkies not to use their pals' hypos, and “Dummy Up,” which, like a lot of rap tunes, advises folks not to say a word to the cops when questioned. Why did Ben Weasel waste so much time with his lame-ass, Ramones-influenced other project, the Riverdales, which nobody really liked? Screeching Weasel, who never tour and have never played L.A., are one of the greatest punk bands of all time, with a library of timeless albums recorded in the space of a decade.
Knowledge: A Gift Before I Go (Asian Man)
This record comes out after the death of Knowledge's singer, Nick Traina, a 19-year-old manic-depressive. (His mom, author Danielle Steel, has written a best-seller, His Bright Light, about his life.) You'll find no hint of Traina's depression in these way-better-than-average, upbeat ska/punk tunes, which boast harmonies that sound like they were sung by an entire bar full of people. Knowledge, named after an Operation Ivy song, also pull off merciless New Yorkstyle hardcore numbers like “Stomp Out” and “Inikwity” and catchy ska tunes like “Clinton Youth,” segueing nimbly from one to the other. Lyrically, it's ska- and reggae-influenced stuff about how we all need to unify and love one another, which I guess is okay if you're a goddamn hippie!