Gritty Music About a Gritty City
Hate to break it to you, hardcore kids: the best point of comparison for Pissed Jeans is Billy Joel.
This isn’t some silly “witty critic” comparison. Ever since I left my (and Pissed Jeans’) hometown of Allentown, Pennsylvania, the only people I’ve met who know of the lovely villa sheepishly admit it’s because of the Long Island crooner’s 1982 hit. To save a lengthy essay: if that’s the only way you know about Allentown, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what it’s like, shut-down factories and all. Joel was too early to be singing about the vanillafication of the area (hi, Philly/NYC commuters!), but recent years have seen the lower-density areas morphing into an endless suburbia, while the higher-density parts of town remain decrepit. Hipster-filled, Ludlow Street gentrification this ain’t.
What it is, though, is a remarkably fertile ground for punk rock—there are enough bored and/or poor white teenagers to sell out a week’s worth of Oblivians concerts. Allentown’s scene has always skewed toward heavier genres, too—classic metal (Pearls & Brass, whose guitarist Randy Huth joins the Jeans here on bass) and noise (Air Conditioning), especially—making Pissed Jeans and their Touch & Go sludge stylings an excellent torchbearer in a post-Jeff the Pigeon world, not to mention the humor they soften each pummeling song with.
The group’s trademark humor—epitomized by “Ice Cream (I’ve Still Got You)” from 2007’s dense-as-fuck Hope for Men—thankfully isn’t absent on the equally heavy (but more tuneful) King of Jeans, it’s just become a little more personal.
Two years ago, frontman Mat Korvette was Yow-ing Jonathan Richman-style banalities over frightening sludge lines, landing in that uncomfortably hilarious area where you’re unsure if he’s got a strong appreciation of simple pleasures or a switchblade and intent. On King of Jeans, though, Korvette covers the same fear of aging that the National covered so deftly on Boxer, if in a slightly less reserved fashion. Standout cut “False Jesii Part 2” (a “sequel” of sorts to Teenage Depression’s 1984 cut) updates Afroman for the too-tired-to-go-out sorts: “I know there are things going on tonight / But I don’t bother”. Meanwhile, “Dream Smotherer” makes a case for itself as the premier working-for-the-man hipster anthem: “It’s alright / I lose my days and keep my nights / No I don’t mind / Wearing a plastic smile”.
Those laughably banal songs aren’t entirely gone here, for what it’s worth—“R-Rated Movie” is about exactly what you’d expect—but they are also some of the record’s most melodic, as if the melody makes up for the antiquated (so 2007) subject matter. I hesitate to attribute King of Jeans‘s newfound melodiousness entirely to Huth (whose main act is bubblegum compared to even this record)—the Jeans have gotten increasingly tuneful on each release. But his addition has certainly moved the group along more quickly than expected, and to fantastic results. “Dream Smotherer” is catchy even by non-hardcore standards, “She Is Science Fiction” is built around a ridiculous hook, and “Human Upskirt” should get even the casual fans into the mosh pit.
Still, this isn’t a pop record—despite the humor, it’s still bleak, intense, and uncompromising. The wall-of-sludge behind Korvette’s yelpy growl is industrial-grade dense, and when the smoke does clear, you can’t even be sure if you like what you see. Nothing about this record is what most people would call “fun”. Fuck the people who tell you this is about “any small town in America”. This is the sound of my hometown laid to tape.