Mom! Dad picked up his guitar again!
Mike Donovan | Monday, October 10, 2016
Do we, as college students, have any right to judge the music of our parents? After all, we’re a bunch of social-media crazed robots wandering aimlessly around a nonsensical 21st century landscape, listening to the Chainsmokers and spouting off about our ridiculous ambitions to save the world. The adolescent sensibilities and pop culture currents of the 1980s should, in theory, mean nothing to us.
I’d argue, though, that many of us experience the spirit of the ‘80s vicariously through our parents. My dad, thankfully, was one cool drink of water during his late college years. When he reminisces about his days spinning records for his college radio station or meandering through Europe to the beat of The Stone Roses, I listen intently. He raised me to watch 1984’s “This is Spinal Tap” — arguably the greatest cinematic knock on popular music ever produced — and appreciate every morsel of its biting satire.
On the flipside, some of my less fortunate peers have probably suffered through hours of Journey, Boston and, God forbid, Styx during family road trips and parental bonding sessions. Maybe, through some sinister mix of hypnotic wizardry and Stockholm syndrome, these peers of mine even grew to enjoy such brash displays of unadulterated dad-rock. All taste aside, our parents find a way to submerge us in the music of their youth. This, in turn, gives us every right to critique it.
I’d like to shine my critical lamp on two bands with a serious case of the nostalgic-parent complex — the Pixies and Beach Slang — both of whom released albums last month.
The Pixies emerged from the American noise rock craze in 1986, following the astonishing success of Sonic Youth. The band’s magnum opus, 1988’s “Surfer Rosa,” sent shockwaves through the music world. Even folks of my tender age recognize its standout single “Where is My Mind?” Granted, many of us probably only recognize it from the last scene of Fight Club, but the tune has staying power.
Last week, the Pixies dropped “Head Carrier,” their 7th studio LP. On the surface, the album sounds like it popped out of a “Surfer Rosa” mold and took a pass under an industrial grade sanding belt. The band, thankfully, had the decency to slap on a different title before sending it out to record stores.
Beach Slang rose to prominence more recently. Dedicated Paul Westerberg fan-boy James Alex formed the band in 2013, hoping to get a second chance at the punk ecstasy of his youth. Last year, Beach Slang debuted with the dense and emotive “The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us” to substantial critical acclaim. On this year’s follow up, “A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings,” the 42-year-old Alex dives deeper still into youth culture, exploring both the romantic sentiments of his past days and the psychological anatomy of his loyal teenage fans.
After listening to the new albums, I’ve developed two admittedly brash conclusions: The Pixies aren’t worth our time anymore, while Beach Slang deserves our loyal sympathy.
The Pixies were on their game in the ‘80s and ‘90s. They had an original sound, thought-provoking lyrics and an enticingly belligerent attitude. Listeners gravitated to “Surfer Rosa” because it embraced pop sensibility without sacrificing raw power or quirkiness. From Black Francis’ psychotic shrieks on the ska-inspired “Something Against You” to the effortlessly witty comic book storytelling on “Tony’s Theme,” the Pixies’ second album had no shortage of sly tricks.
“Head Carrier,” unfortunately, reaches right back into the same bag of tricks and executes them poorly. “Surfer Rosa’s” staple tropes — unhinged guitar wailing, provocative poetry and offbeat charisma — return in a sedated state on the new release. “I try to think about tomorrow / But I always think about the past,” bassist Paz Lenchantin moans to start “All I Think About Now.” I agree with her completely. The song shamelessly copies “Where is My Mind?” and it does so without a trace of personality. The new album follows “Surfer Rosa’s” outline to the letter, but it replaces the former’s raw peculiarity with the sulking boredom so prevalent in corporate rock.
On “Head Carrier” the Pixies show refusal to grow up, but that isn’t their grave sin. Age dysphoria is forgivable and, at times, admirable in rock and roll. The Pixies fall short because they don’t seem to believe in what they’re doing anymore. As a result, we can’t empathize with their music. “Head Carrier” could be a plea for the past or a bid for more money, but it has little emotional value for the young listener.
Beach Slang’s “A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings,” like “Head Carrier,” owes a sizable debt to the ‘80s. The Replacements and Husker Du basically wrote the book on James Alex’s moody delinquent thing. Beach Slang’s album, though, exhibits a distinct personality. Alex’s music has a certain x-factor that elevates his latest project — essentially sappy ramblings of a middle-aged punk — to a higher plane than the Pixies’ snooze fest. What, then, sets Beach Slang’s sloppy guitar jams apart from the work of bona fide indie royalty like the Pixies?
“A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings” serves Beach Slang’s fans above all else. In an interview with Pitchfork, Alex dedicates the album to “the kids who got turned on to Beach Slang by the first album.” He wholeheartedly believes that he can connect with the younger generation, even if he has to draw on his own late-‘80s adolescence to do so.
Beach Slang’s healthy sense of self-awareness adds another layer of credibility to their music. “We’re not lost, we are dying in style,” Alex wryly indicates on “Future Mixtape for the Art Kids.” He’s well aware that his naive teenage years are well behind him, but it’s this looming threat of mortality that energizes his unflinching musical romanticism. Thanks to Alex’s firm intentions and self-awareness, “A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings” feels sincere. Alex uses his wealth of life experience as a vehicle for empathy. His age becomes an asset, not a barrier.
When Alex wails, “Man, they taught me to talk / Then told me to shut up,” during the chorus of “Punks in a Disco Bar,” he perfectly conveys the universal nature of the outsider mentality. As 42-year-old indie rocker, Alex will never quite fit in a genre dominated by troubled youths. Likewise, his core body of listeners — teenage misfits who thwart the pop culture zeitgeist in favor of punk rock’s retro thrill — often find themselves cast off from their social communities as well. Since the currents of modern entertainment have little time for outsiders, regardless of their age, Alex has common ground on which to build a genuine relationship with his fans.
Sincerity separates the impassioned nostalgia of “A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings” from the uninspired dad-punk of “Head Carrier.” The legendary rock journalist Lester Bangs once said, “The whole purpose of the absurd, mechanically persistent involvement in recorded music is the pursuit of that priceless moment.” The Pixies get lost in the mechanics as they pursue their magic moment. The social awareness that “Surfer Rosa” displayed so well thirty years ago must’ve disappeared on the arduous journey to the present.
Beach Slang, on the other hand, throw themselves at the current moment without fear, often at the expense of mechanical perfection. They wrap us in imminent stories and feelings, sentiments as relevant now as they were decades ago. James Alex transcends his labels and stereotypes with endearing sensitivity.
Beach Slang embodies the cool dad vibe. I want to listen to what Alex has to say and live his experiences by proxy. The Pixies, on the other hand, work the disillusioned parent angle. I still love them, but they’re desperately out of touch.