Recipe for a Punk Band
Start with the entire mid-late 1980s catalog of 7 Seconds albums. Add approximately 1/2 Cup of The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Keidis on vocals, and 1/2 cup Henry Rollins. Blend. Stir in a heavy ska influence, enough to taste. Add a dash of political consciousness, less than Consolidated but more than, say, Mariah Carey. Sift in an ounce of self-conscious humor. Simmer on low for approximately 55 minutes. Sprinkle with some actual musicianship, and serve hot. Feeds an army of disgruntled youth.
If prepared correctly, you should now be listening to the Washington DC-based Daycare Swindlers’ new release, Testosterosa. There’s nothing here that’s reinventing the punk-ska wheel. But it’s a solid effort, one that shouldn’t be too uncomfortable to the curious listener who thinks that ska was invented by No Doubt and that Blink 182 is a punk band, but also doesn’t abandon punk and ska devotees who are able to recognize the conventions and the deviations from the norms. Testosterosa is more mature than the Swindlers’ 1998 release New & Tasty, in a way that doesn’t say “sell out” as much as it says “hyper-production”; whatever DIY ethic may have proceeded the band is clearly gone, replaced by a slick sound that is predictably rough in all the right places and yet manages to maintain some kind of “authenticity,” whatever that is.
What sets Daycare Swindlers apart from other punk bands in the rat pack is their musicianship. Leaps and bounds ahead of the musical game, the Swindlers stopped relying on 3-chord wonders when they were still in diapers, and it shows. The guitar work is solid, if somewhat conventional, and it’s easy to hear a mature balance that’s both strangely sophisticated and unfortunately missing in many punk (and ska) bands. After all, it’s not your typical punk band that can go from “She Devil Stomp,” a delightful cross between the Hawaii Five-O theme song and the latest Levis commercial to “Stomp Song,” one which proclaims, “I don’t like you / In fact I hate you” in a way that is unexplainably sweet and musically reminiscent of early Mötley Crüe. Go figure. But for all that could be said about the guitar work on Testosterosa, it’s clearly the drum work of Mark “Blasto” Reiter that drives the band and holds the pieces together. Reiter is a smart and careful drummer, and his versatility lends the band an ounce of intensity and buttloads of technical virtuosity it would otherwise lack.
Testosterosa comes equipped with all the ingredients of a great punk album: sing-along choruses (the strongest of which are “Captivity” and “Stomp Song”), confused and hypocritical arm-chair politics (the kind that say “cops are pigs and fascists, racism sucks, capitalism is the root of all evil, and boy, aren’t porn stars really the ultimate women?!?”) and enough self-righteous indignation to fuel a whole school full of trench coat mafias. Despite the supposed seriousness of punk music and punk musicians themselves, Testosterosa is remarkably fun; there’s a real sense of humor behind the musicianship, and some honest to God real musicianship behind the sense of humor. In many ways, it’s a perfect balance.
However, the album is, over all, a bit uneven, and it’s clear that Testosterosa falls a bit short with its lyrics. Certainly there’s something to be said for a band full of suburban white boys singing about something other than beer and professional wrestling. After all, The Dead Kennedys didn’t become so damn famous because of Jello Biafra’s stellar vocal abilities, and The Swindlers do make what seems like an honest attempt to deal with issues ranging from drug addiction to national politics of subordination. But with lyrics like “Let me make one thing clear / I never asked to be here / I came in this world alone / And when I leave, I leave alone” (“Dirt Nap”) and “Social standing’s who we are / Hold the answer inside a jar / A lottery of degenerates / It’s who you know/It’s sick, sick, sick / Gathering of industry / Cooperate catastrophe / Stand in line and pay the fee/Follow in step, follow…” (“1/3 Hate”), their lyrics are less earth-shaking and brilliant than they are all too easily-anticipated. There’s a rawness in the lyrics that could be chocked up to punk traditions, but in reality, it’s not that the lyrics are gritty; they are just not terribly innovative, filled with clichés, and far too self-congratulatory and melodramatic. The truth is that political punk has been done before, and it’s been done better. And, as the cover work confirms (a “supermodel” in a lycra dress and go-go boots who is predictably headless and immobile as the members of the band struggle to grab various parts of her anatomy, a move that could have been smart if done in a Lords of Acid way but which, simply, wasn’t and therefore isn’t), the band’s politics are inconsistent enough that they threaten to collapse on themselves and implode the whole package.
If The Swindlers stick to the sing-along fantasy songs they are best at (typified by “Spy vs. Spy” and “Jenna Jameson,” which pays homage to the trendy porn star du jour), they should take their place among radio-ready, summer singles bands and follow the diet-punk of The Offspring on compilation tapes everywhere. But there’s a crucial difference between The Swindlers and the Offspring: Whereas The Offspring are the Monkees of their time, Daycare Swindlers are actually good, and good for you. And, you know, they’re punk.