Punk of the 2010s Part 3
Anyone paying attention to this (doubtful!) may notice that there’s a bit of a gap between entries here. I rarely really abandon projects or ideas, but I do take looooong breaks sometimes. Anyone reading this also following my podcast (also doubtful!) has probably noticed.
Anyway, I’m glad to be getting back to this because this one has some real doozies in it!
This one’s kind of about power pop and a new wave that basically draws on any influence from the so called “underground rock” of the past: 60s garage, 70s power pop, 80s college rock, 90s alt rock, and beyond, following whatever influences seem cool, like this timeless image of love struck 20 something year olds sleeping on a bong water soaked sofa that could have come from anytime since kids stopped working in factories and instead became “adolescents.” A lot of times this was the province of dudes, but it’s now increasingly a home for women as well; women can have friends and be stoned and have romantic crushes and eat pizza and collect records and wear flannel just like their male counter-parts. I suppose the obvious next step will be queer and trans, and we are clearly seeing that as well. I don’t know if it will last forever, but there’s a nice kind of timelessness for now, seen in bands like Sheer Mag.
As always, I’m using the broadest possible interpretation of “punk” here. DIY-rooted, alternately catchy or aggressive, often guitar oriented (though not always!), with political or personal (or the personal as political) lyrics, and usually rooted in some community that a musical publication would consider part of the “punk” scene. If these don’t match your own particular definition of punk, don’t worry, I’ll write about NOFX and company in a later one.
BOMB THE MUSIC INDUSTRY/JEFF ROSENSTOCK
Bomb the Music Industry! was undoubtedly one of the most important bands of the 2000s era, pushing the commitment to DIY ethics of earlier bands like Fugazi into the digital era, offering all their music for free online. It’s worth remembering that this was only a few years after the whole Napster/Metallica kerfuffle, and while it’s a little bit different for a small indie band, who probably isn’t going to make THAT much money off a record anyway, compared to, uh, Metallica, it still seems like the perfect economical punk answer to the file sharing question — beat the pirates and just give all your music away for free already. This embrace of technology as a means to create counter-cultural art (in contrast to the sometimes traditionalist mindset of some portions of the general punk scene) runs throughout the music and practices of BTMI. The whole project started as the bedroom solo recording project of frontman Jeff Rosenstock post the breakup of his not quite seminal (though increasingly so) ska band the Arrogant Sons of Bitches, made possible by the increasing accessibility of recording equipment and software. Supposedly, you can hear the recording “hiss” on certain cymbal hits on their first album, an anti-piracy lock put in place by the manufacturers to force people to buy the full plug-in, but then embraced by Rosenstock as part of the noisy anything goes aesthetic. Bomb the Music Industry albums are messy hodgepodges of a hundred different musical styles: pop punk, and hardcore, and ska, and indie rock, and weird electronic gameboy noises and fuzzed out pseudo-country. Again, there is a tendency to go in the opposite direction of the more uptight portions of the underground and distorted guitar scenes, embracing noisy electronic flourishes as well as “lame” genres like the continual embrace and inclusion of ska-punk that continues to this day. Lyrics that could touch on the political, but largely focused on the ennui of being an aging 20-something (particularly one with a predilection toward playing in underground rock bands).
Bomb the Music Industry put out two killer projects in the 2010s — the 7 song EP Adults!!!: Smart!!! Shithammered!!! And Excited By Nothing!!!!!!! and the full length Vacation, possibly their masterpiece, that pushed the band toward a slightly more melancholy and subdued sound (well, mostly). This evolution would continue with Jeff Rosenstock’s first solo projects. The first couple albums seemed to be much more in the power-pop/fuzzy indie rock vein — good albums to be sure, but it made me miss the more direct homages to music that I loved in high school, the ska and pop punk and wild hardcore. Later solo albums would bring those elements back with gusto, personal faves being Worry’s three song suite, and an entire ska reimagining of 2020's No Dream titled Ska Dream.
The genre melding, the embrace of technology, and the commitment to DIY ethics, with top-notch songwriting and a killer live show that never seems to lose the sense of fun and wonder of a band playing its first all ages show in a veteran’s hall. It’s no wonder that Bomb and Rosenstock have been incredibly influential to later generations of punk and underground rock — ska and pop punk, yes, but fifth wave emo and folk punk as well.
I’ve seen Bomb the Music Industry or Jeff Rosenstock 4 or 5 times, but the first time sticks out for me because I was hungry, and I went to eat a hamburger at the bar (RIP Portland’s Satyricon) and missed the whole set because I only sort of knew who they were.
ANDREW JACKSON JIHAD/AJJ
Just before I missed the Bomb the Music Industry set at the Satyricon, a band that I knew slightly better played, at that time touring and recording under the name “Andrew Jackson Jihad” (they changed their name to AJJ in 2016). During the set a quite drunk woman came up on stage and started dancing around before being ejected by security, and AJJ singer Sean Bonnette made a crack about this feeling like a Germs show from the late 70s. After the set, they stood outside the venue and offered autographs as other bands, signing “Metallica” on people’s t-shirts with a Sharpee marker.
The band put out several excellent albums in the mid 2000s as a duo, greatly shaping the emerging folk punk scene with traditional instruments, homages to older folk music, and probably most significantly, razor sharp lyrics that wove a fine line between the sardonic and the confessional. To me, there always seemed something slightly Christian about AJJ, but if Christianity actually did what it said on the tin and were about forgiveness and acceptance of the fellowman, even at his worst. These ideas would also be explored in a different way by certain contemporaries that we’ll get to in a later one of these, and that had been previously explored by obvious folk punk influencer the Mountain Goats.
In the 2010s, AJJ expanded their sound, incorporating genre experimentation and electric instrument, which could range from deeply melancholic mood pieces to revved up punk ravers, and, while still fully dealing with the same themes of guilt, shame, hopelessness, and perhaps just an iota of light, began to push their lyrics to more metaphorical places. Though I think 2014s Christmas Island was a more fully realized evolution, my own favorite is 2011s Knife Man, the last album they put out under the Andrew Jackson Jihad moniker. To me, it sounds more searching, more like a grab-bag of genre experiments, but maintaining the slightly more direct lyrical style of their earlier work. (It was also an album I listened to relentlessly after a break-up, which might also have something to do with it.)
Also a keyboard player for Bomb the Music Industry, but Laura Stevenson deserves to be recognized in her own right.
Music runs the gamut from stripped down folky-indie to buzzy power pop. Like the above bands, songs are meticulously crafted but still maintain some kind of down-home quality — music you could imagine friends playing together in an old kitchen or someone’s backyard. It’s worth mentioning how vital this kind of thing feels, both then and now. In the mid-2000s when these projects essentially began, music seemed split between giant corporatized poles — you had giant radio ready “indie” rock bands like the Strokes and Radiohead — music characterized in many ways be veneers of aloofness (and possibly cocaine) — and you had the “scene” — emo and skate punk bands, full of Guitar Center distortion, Warped Tour energy drink sponsorships, and lyrics that hit right at the melodramatic heart of a 14 year old, but not really anybody else.
Thoughtful music that exudes warmth, made by people that seem to come from your own community — that may not be “punk” as it’s traditionally thought of but to me it’s a clear torch-bearer for its early utopian promise.
The 2010s were kind of a golden period of women-led projects of simultaneously wistful and fuzzy indie pop-rock, “punk” in spirit and DIY-ethics more than sound as we’ll see with the next couple of bands.
Lemuria was also present at the AJJ/Bomb Show, an “Asian Man Records” tour that also featured Kepie Ghoulie of the Groovie Ghoulies, and was headlined by the Queers. That line-up seems impossible to me now, not least because the Queers’ Joe King has said problematic things about Black Lives Matter (and, you know, they’re called the Queers and have an album called Love Songs For the Retarded), but in 2008 the lines hadn’t been so drawn. After their 2008 Asian Man debut, Lemuria signed with Bridge 9 Records, generally a hardcore label which seems an odd fit for the soft-voiced dual male/female lead singers of Lemuria’s indie-punk. But re-listening to this stuff, there is a kind of driving intensity to songs like “Pleaser,” so maybe it makes a bit more sense after all.
Twin sisters Alison and Katie Crutchfield started PS Eliot in 2007 in Birmingham, partially out of a desire to carve out a more inclusive space than the male dominated hardcore of the local scene.
PS Eliot put out albums of hooky, pop-punk that leaned toward the indie rock side of the genre, with a clear vocal presence and hints toward a broader musical palate (that harmonica on Incoherent Love Songs.)
They broke up in 2011, so that the two sisters could each pursue their own musical endeavors, Swearin and Waxatachee. Both are fully realized indie forces in their own right, but in overly-simplified brief, Swearin’ continued the noisy, hooky indie punk side, while Waxahatchee pushed forward toward more subdued, introspective sounds. But you know, they both fuckin’ rip.
The largely woman fronted bands of this particular set clearly have predecessors in both the Riot Grrl scene of the 90s as well as stuff like Discount, but I wonder if they in a way are also the descendants of the sort of mainstream “alt-rock” women singer-songwriter boom of the late 90s and early 2000s.
Maybe a stretch, but I think singers like Alanis Morissette and Liz Phair were both deeply personal, as well as had a keen understanding of the political effect of women writing and singing about their own experiences. And hey, they could get pretty rocking too sometimes, right?
Perhaps I make this connection here because Hop Along started as Frances Quinlan’s (recently out as non-binary) solo project, and seems as inspired by the great pantheon of rock n roll artists from the 60s on as by any particular “punk” sound. Their lyrics touch on feminist themes of power imbalance, with a specificity that seems indebted to writers like Flannery O’Connor.
The star of the show here is of course Quinlan’s unique voice, simultaneously powerful and vulnerable, but I think there’s a real secret weapon in those guitar lines, that seem to bridge the gap between mid-western emo and funky 70s pop, a probable fusing of Quinlan’s own incredibly idiosyncratic songwriting sensibilities and Joe Reinhart, previously of legendary DIY emo band Algernon Cadwallader.
Moving into slightly more conventional pop punk, but still with the massively catchy hooks and another idiosyncratic non-binary singer. Worriers is singer/guitarist Lauren Denitzio’s follow up to mega pop punk band The Measure (SA), and often features fellow pop-punk luminary Mikey Erg (below) on drums.
This is probably a good place to mention how much of an important force Don Giovanni Records has been for this kind of music the last decade or so. I did not realize how much punk (and adjacent) rock of the last decade or so had been put out by them until I started putting these together, but you’d think I was running a promo for them!
Mikey Erg was the drummer, singer, and primary song-writer of the now legendary mostly defunct 2000s pop-punk band the Ergs. It seems like Mikey Erg was wandering a bit after that (playing drums in Star Fucking Hipsters and what not) before going all in on his solo act. The Ergs always hinted at a slightly larger musical palate than some of their genre contemporaries (and could play a mean country song), and Mikey Erg’s solo work leans more toward the power pop end of things, slotting himself neatly into the large history of pop-oriented rock n roll tracing back to the British Invasion, both in music as well as stylistic flourishes such as the album font titles or that incredible looking Rickenbacker guitar. While we’re here, I’d also like to direct your attention to this incredible solo Propagandhi cover.
Continuing with one-man power pop forces of nature, here we have Ted Leo, with or without his Pharmacists. Punknews.org used to call him the “motherfucking man,” and he is distinct for his silky smooth voice, smart, left-leaning lyrics, and sharp, mod-influenced guitar playing.
As is probably apparent, I am over 30 and am fascinated by the idea of how to age within a supposedly youth oriented sub culture (though less so all the time I suspect).
The answer of course is any damn way you want, but there do seem to be a few trodden paths. One is to go into more rootsy Americana (perhaps we’ll get to the solo work of Chuck Ragan on one of these), but Ted Leo seems to represent another path.
After putting out a string of stone-cold classics in the 2000s, Ted Leo’s output slowed down a bit in the 2010s. 2010's The Brutalist Bricks with full band the Pharmacists is good, if somewhat similar to the Pharmacists albums of the previous decade. But I think 2017’s The Hanged Man (credited solely to Ted Leo) is something of a masterpiece.
In some ways it feels like Ted Leo entering his “studio as band member” phase, incorporating strings, piano, and various vocal effects, and featuring some back-up vocals from indie rappers and comedians. However that’s not the only thing that gives this album its poignancy, unfortunately.
Ted Leo and his wife had to relocate from his Brooklyn Heights home after no longer being able to afford it, showing that being a Punknews favorite does not necessarily translate to vast fortunes. More tragically, his wife Jodi had a late-term miscarriage in 2011, and I think both of these events hang over much of the album, not in the over the top bombast of a pop break-up song, but in the pained and reserved tone of songs like “Let’s Stay on the Moon” or “Used to Believe” with its line “I used to believe we’d be comfortably settled by now.” I dunno, maybe it’s just me but that seems to speak to some specific turmoil about creating original art in a world that, uh, couldn’t really give a shit, and the related economic anxieties that produces. Would that we had all fallen in love with accounting instead.
For my money, I don’t think the semi-DIY punk scene has had a guitar hero of quite the same caliber as Marissa Paternoster. Most of the innovative punk and post-punk guitar players I think approached it from a more deconstructionist angle, but Paternoster goes all in with guitar heroics, fuzzed out freak out solos of the type you could imagine a 70s hard rock band high on Jimi Hendrix albums churning out. This would be something in itself, but she also has one of the most powerful and idiosyncratic singing voices in the scene as well, and Screaming Females generally apply both of these weapons to catchy, hooky rock songs. To me they almost sound like a revved up and popped up stoner metal band, though when they want to they can pile on the goddamn heartbreak as well. And they did a fucking killer cover of Sheryl Crow for the AVClub a few years ago.
Speaking of guitar heroics, Sheer Mag is like if Thin Lizzy was a DIY-basement show band but with arguably catchier hooks and another incredible idiosyncratic lady singer (there’s a few through lines in this installment, if you can tell). In high school, I was into punk, but I also spent plenty of time jamming out to the Dazed and Confused soundtrack, and this is like if you distilled all the best bits of that kind of thing, cutting the 70s classic rock bloat into a perfect package of rock n roll power.
Fun as hell surfy guitar rock. Writing a surf song about periods called “Crimson Wave” seems as essential as classic Green Day songs about masturbation. They also have the ability that the best pop-punk bands of the 90s did of being able to take a sort of frivolous or pop cultural topic and imbue it with genuine emotion, often wistfulness of a passing youth.
I love the lo-fi special effects of that Dana Scully video.
When I first heard the name, naturally I assumed this band was from Muncie, Indiana, but actually they are from Exeter, England, and you can hear the accent creep appealingly into Lande Hekt’s vocals. Another solid slice of emotionally rich, crunchy power pop/punk rock though evokes memories of longing crushes on girls with cool hats and PBR cans. Hekt also has a more subdued solo act.
I saw this band play in a dive bar in Portland (I don’t remember the name) just up the street from my apartment (lined on either side by strip clubs), where I talked to someone in a “Fastbacks” t-shirt. Also present was Nonnie, a staple of the Portland DIY scene of the time, and member of the folk punk band Living Rheum, though I didn’t talk to them. Somehow I assumed that my life would be like that forever, while still grappling with the feeling that it was all slipping away somehow. I suppose those moments come and go, but it’s never quite like it is when you’re 25 is it?
“Nothing You Could Say” was a staple of my mix CDs for quite a while.