Wednesday, September 5, 2012

All or Nothing (whole album stream here)

Epitaph, 2012

The Black Pacific
The Black Pacific
(sample tracks here)
SideOneDummy, 2010

This week I got the latest album by Pennywise (All or Nothing), and The Black Pacific’s self-titled debut, for a combined total of $7.  One was used, one was a promo copy; talk about pennywise.  Treating them like competing records would be stupid, and The Black Pacific album has been out for 2 years, but I thought it would be interesting to review them together.  How do the former bandmates stack up under the daunting pressure of performing separately?

Jim Lindberg was Pennywise’s singer for 20 years, so the expectations upon him to go in a different direction with The Black Pacific were considerable.  On opening track ‘The System’ you can hear Jim straining both his vocal chords and desire to do just that, and this heavier tint comes back intermittently throughout the album.  Perhaps predictably, however, it’s for the most part not a huge break, either lyrically or musically.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: at their best, Pennywise delivered albums with small, practically indescribable steps of evolution over previous recordings.

The new blood have provided Jim with a deeper, chunkier, larger backing sound, worthy of a band with ‘Pacific’ in their name.  ‘Kill Your Idols,’ for example, is not a dedication to that earlier SideOneDummy act, but an indie band at its most punk and exciting.  ‘Put Down Your Weapons’ and ‘No Purpose,’ at the end of the album, both show original territory and vocal techniques if not themes.  Most importantly, The Black Pacific aren’t running out of energy by the time they get to these songs, a trait that plagued recent Pennywise records.  Lindberg genuinely sounds like he is enjoying his return to music after spending time writing a book (Punk Rock Dad) and taking the leading role in a documentary inspired by that book (The Other F-Word).  Right now things appear quiet in the BP camp (yeah, Black Pacific could indeed be a spoof name for the deepwater-drilling oil company), but new material has supposedly been in the works for a while, so keep an ear out.

Despite the comfort of still being together, the remaining members of Pennywise also had considerable pressure going into this release. Not only were they showcasing a new vocalist (Zoli Téglás of Ignite), but the growing impression that they had nothing left to offer must have been evident to them.  You can see it in the album cover claim that All or Nothing is a “return to their roots,” as well as the fact that it bears a close resemblance to the design of their self-titled 1991 classic.  They also make a thankful return to Epitaph, after 2008’s close to un-listenable Reason to Believe came out (in the U.S.) on Myspace Records.  And as for the title…

The first impression is a good one.  The title track and particularly its opening line, “What’s the fucking problem with this world today?,” are so blastingly well delivered that you’re forced to give the revised line-up a chance.  By the third and forth track the band sound like they are desperately using speed to avoid running out of steam — and succeeding pretty well.  What exactly has led Pennywise back to this encouraging place?  The addition of Téglás must have something to do with it, as they largely avoid sounding like just another EpiFat band without Lindberg’s distinctive voice.  Stopping the cycle of rushing albums out every 2 years must also have helped.  Just as listeners sometimes need to take time off from their CDs to refresh how they sound, the band really needed to take stock. 

All the problems haven’t been fixed though.  The cliché expressions we’ve come to expect are still around despite coming from a different mouth, like “hypocrisy” (‘Tomorrow’ and ‘United’), “all along” (‘X Generation’ and uh, ‘All Along’) and my god, the bloody “woah-oh” filler.  It even gets to the point where you don’t know if lines are clever homages and references or lazily written.  The aforementioned opening track features “We’ll never know until we try,” which is strikingly close to “How will we know until we try?” from Pennywise‘s amazing blast-off, ‘Wouldn’t it Be Nice’.  ‘Seeing Red’ might be a Minor Threat reference, and Fletcher Dragge’s only stand-out line on the album, “Fuck off and die,” might well be a nod to Lindberg’s same stand-out shout on Unknown Road‘s ‘Nothing’.  Who the hell knows?  Despite a succinct 12 tracks, the last third still lags.

It might seem sad to acknowledge that both camps, as of now, seem to be doing better work apart.  Fans of old Pennywise will find these albums easily enjoyable, even if they don’t exactly reinvent the skateboard wheel.  It’s because a little change makes for a vast improvement: Pennywise were never that different, on paper, between making great and rubbish music.  So while they may not have quite come full circle, as the Pennywise logo shows, a jagged attempt at a rough circle can be cool as well.

Edit: In October 2012, Jim rejoined Pennwise, rendering some of the thoughts in this review really dumb. For the time being anyway. The Black Pacific isn’t over, but looks like it will be on the back-burner for the foreseeable future.