[27 June 2011]
The World/Inferno Friendship Society is a longstanding Brooklyn-based collective that plays cabaret punk spanning the themes of good times, political mindedness and their intersection. The Anarchy and the Ecstasy is their thirteenth release (fifth album), but the first offering since the Peter Lorre-inspired concept album Addicted to Bad Ideas, from 2007. There have been lineup changes over the last few years, but nothing too new for the loose sense of the collective, which tends to maintain a consistent sound regardless. The new record, released on the Bouncing Souls’ label Chunksaah, finds the Society in full form, complete with tight horn arrangements, slinky piano, rockabilly-primed bass and guitar, and full-throated dual male-female vocals.
World/Inferno Friendship Society seems to be a relic of a forgotten time, even though they are emblematic of a certain path for adult punk rockers. (“Adult” here means playing your instruments well and even wearing suits, albeit cool suits.) The group’s jubilant DIY ethic mixed with eclectic world music taste pays tribute to the old New York Moon Ska scene. Led by the dapper and strange Jack Terricloth, the band is a group of punks who like to dress nice, with a fashion sense located in that meeting point of mod, punk, rockabilly, swing kid and old-time Euro threads. But it’s not just a fashion statement that they want to make. Their music is sophisticated, impeccably arranged and dynamic. That said, there’s something about their earnestness that begins to grate.
Terricloth’s voice rumbles down into Bruce Springsteen range and finds in that territory the same dramatic turns the Boss loves so much.. The lyrical world the group creates of fun-loving, hard-working hooligans seems just as real and authentic as the Boss’ assemblage of Jersey folk. Yet on certain songs, like the overly sincere “The Politics of Passing Out”, Terricloth’s melodies and delivery verge on musical cheesiness—just like Springsteen.
The problem with the group is this constant challenge of cheesiness, which comes with the campy retro stylings that seem to want quotation marks around them. But where the majority of bands go retro, lo-fi, and shitty, World/Inferno Friendship Society is actually musically accomplished.. On “Thirteen Years Without Peter King”—don’t think they’re talking about the anti-Muslim Republican Congressman from NY—Terricloth and Sandra Malak trade off on the chorus, singing, “And now it’s far too late to go / No one ever saw the show.” You get the feeling this song could be a particularly melodramatic duet on Broadway
There’s a fine line between well-written, well-played, nicely arranged music and a cheesy serving of Euro-Americana. That borderline consists mostly of crystal-clear horns and piano, notoriously anti-punk instruments. The crispness of the production highlights the musicians, but also takes away the edge and dampens any irony the band has. A band that plays whole-hearted cabaret music and even dresses the part needs irony. World/Inferno Friendship Society does well to scale down, but that rarely happens. Terricloth’s paean to his native Jersey river, “The Mighty Raritan”, has a nice folky feel provided by an acoustic guitar that counteracts the dramatic fervor of some of the other tracks.
The horns, however, do add something. They’re not just the obligatory ska band accoutrement. The album opens on “I Am Sick of People Being Sick Of My Shit” with a nicely timed horn section befitting a third-wave ska band, where Terricloth croons, “Sound wants to be free,” his answer to the leaking of album demos before the release. On the next track, “The Disarming Smile”, the horns lead into the chorus with a mariachi-inspired melody. On “They Talk of Nora’s Badness”, the Celtic folk melody calls for a mellower horn section that meshes well with the rippling piano part. Yet by the seventh track, “Jake and Eggers”, you feel like the non-rock musical influence gamut has been completely run. Luckily the album is relatively short—only 10 songs in about 35 minutes—so there is less time to get bored.
The line-crossing that World/Inferno Friendship Society constantly risks happens emblematically at the end of “Canonize Philip K. Dick, Ok”, a standout track that suddenly gets overblown. The nicely timed lyric that is a badge of WIFS politics, “Can’t change the system from within / it ends up changing you,” becomes an operatic refrain that wipes out memory of the narrative song structure that preceded it. One might say the anarchy gives into the ecstasy too much; the message becomes too important. This is a perennial problem for political bands—and this album is very political lyrically. Sometimes it just seems wrong to mix radical politics with easily accessible music. Where a band like Crass was both raw and radical, a band like the Redskins, the ‘80s British communist skinhead soul group (yes), was cheesy.
Though World/Inferno Friendship Society doesn’t only sing about world problems, their extreme literacy sometimes seems incongruous. This is the whole point of the band, to provide a back story for punk ethos with Modernist art forms. There is nothing wrong with this endeavor, but the theatricality doesn’t translate on record. World/Inferno Friendship Society fulfills that subculture tendency to continually backdate uniqueness. Still, they are quite good. Just sometimes too good. That’s not a plea for mediocrity—just a declaration of taste.