Penniless has this sort of graph on their website of the bands reviewers most often name when searching for comparisons. Though I have visited many a band website or seen many a show in which one or another member whines about reviewers’ comparisons in the name of personal creativity and uniqueness, I have never seen this sort of complaint elevated to the level of statistical analysis. It really takes the whole tired institution of the “we’re just doing our thing, man” protest to a whole new level. I loved it. It’s geeky (which I always love) because somebody had to look through lots of reviews (Anola is Penniless’ fifth album, so there’s quite a backlog) and tally up the figures. Because they so obviously took the time to do this, and presented it in PowerPoint precision, the display smacks not a little of that other, far more pleasing rock institution: self-deprecating irony. Not to mention that this reviewer was forced to examine her own values, since the three bands mentioned with the most frequency were precisely the three that she was thinking of using as stylistic touchstones in the review.
Though I’m sure you’re all dying to know who made the top three, let me try and say a few things about this album without resorting to the odious comparison. This is quite an entertaining album, tight and humorous and subtly strange. Impish but evil. Straightforward but mocking. The simple words and even simpler wordplay (“I’m an imbecile for you / I’m in Brazil for you”—the single hilariously features an image of the Brazilian flag), the artful employment of every indie trick and guitar hook in the book, are the surface tension playing over fjord-worthy depths.
And funny I should mention fjords, because our lads (Lasse Alisaari on drums, Ossi Alisaari on guitars and vocals, Pekka Alisaari on the same, Kimmo Kurittu on bass, and Mikko Pere on still more guitars) grew up in the small town of Nakkila, on the west coast of Finland. You can hear the edge of the Scandinavian accent when they sing. And, according to leading Finnish rock journalist Ilkka Mattila, Penniless’ fresh-faced humor is a particularly Finnish trait. So there you go.
Actually, in terms of their style or the personality that emerges from the lyrics, I think of Toronto-based comedy like The Kids in the Hall (I know, I know, I wasn’t going to make comparisons . . . but The Kids in the Hall are not a rock band, okay?). There’s this sort of earnestness combined with the wry awareness of living in a backwater off the mainstream, tinted with the malice that made Stephen King (NOT A BAND!!) a master of small-town horror: people in those little villages are just as fucked up as you and me, friends. Difference is, they’ve got nowhere to go to avoid each other.
Well. The top three, patient people, are the Pixies with 27 total references, Nirvana with 11, and Weezer with 10. And yes, Penniless does sound a heck of a lot like each of these bands. The priceless “Imbecile” features a verse as mournful and minor-key as anything Cobain ever sang about his idiocy and self-loathing, then slips into the deep crunch of the most anthematic of Weezer choruses. “Beautiful” features as long and lusty a guitar-strum drone as that hallmark of Pixies brilliance, “Gigantic.” “Never Forget You” is as much of an anthem for the overlooked as that other indie geek standard bearer, “The Sweater Song.” And, songs like “Beauty of Dreaming” bare the same simple neediness that made Cobain (shotguns aside) the patron saint of separation anxiety; while the conflicted “Black Crows” reveals the same morbidity (now you can get the shotguns) and fascination with death that made Cobain, well, a sort of saint.
Penniless do well what Nirvana and Weezer, and to a lesser extent the Pixies, who sit closer to the roots of this formation, also do well: incorporate a number of scattered idioms into a seamless flow that both preserves and improves upon the original sound. That’s no easy task, and though I haven’t heard Penniless’ earlier efforts, I’ll bet that years of playing together helps when it comes to crafting such a tight and intelligent sound.
Moreover, this style isn’t just a faithful copy of bands living closer to the mainstream of rock and roll culture. Maybe, as the Finnish rock critic says, it’s a mark of their nationality, or maybe it’s just who they are (which would of course include which language they speak, where they grew up, the number of quarts of vodka they can consume before passing out), but the lyrics are what really make Penniless. I have said that they have a touch of Nirvana’s fascination with death. But Cobain would never express this obsession with the words “My mind and the other side are well connected” (“Black Crows”). Those lyrics have a wonderful literal quality that makes their poetry material—as in real. I can imagine Rivers Cuomo singing “If you go I’ll feed the dog” (“Adam’s Apple Pie”), but he wouldn’t lead up to it by singing with unabashed emotion “All my bones / All my bones are full of you”. It’s that push and pull between awkward everyday life and the emotional yearning at the heart of all rock music that pushes Anola beyond Nirvana’s morose simpering and Weezer’s clever evasiveness and into a place that feels strangely like home. On “Imbecile” (one of my favorites), after making the aforementioned rhyme between “imbecile” and “in Brazil”, the bridge goes “I’ll change the way / you look at the world / I’ll change the way it turns”. Now, any self-help book will tell you that you can’t change somebody, but the simple rhyme imbecile/in Brazil expresses the whole sentiment, futility and all.
Guess my review will take your Pixies, Nirvana, and Weezer tallies up to 28, 12, and 11, respectively. But, as one of the Alisaaris sings on the album’s closer, “Lullabies”: “I make songs for lovers / I don’t need no others”. Amen. Comparison to three of the greatest ain’t nothing to be ashamed of.