[8 February 2004]
In many ways, Poster Children is like a lot of bands that made their mark thanks to the grunge explosion of the early 1990s. There’s evidence their songs structures haven’t advanced much since 1995, much of the guitar work sounds dated, and they have a penchant for sounding a hell of a lot like the Pixies.
But the remarkable thing—when you consider the slew of carcasses left behind in Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s wake—about the band started in Champaign, Illinois, by brothers Rick and Jim Valentin is that they are still putting out serviceable records. If they tend to have more filler than previous efforts and the songs don’t grab you as immediately as those on, say, 1995’s major label Junior Citizen, well, it’s almost to be expected. So even though their first record of new material since 2000’s DDD achieves mixed results, it’s something of an accomplishment by it’s mere existence.
No More Songs About Sleep and Fire follows up 2002’s Zero Stars: A DVD Tour Diary and is Poster Children’s ninth record in 16 years. The Valentin brothers, Rick on vocals and guitar and Jim on guitar, are joined this time out by longtime vocalist/bassist Rose Marshack (also Rick’s wife) and new drummer Matt Friscia. While the drummer has changed, much of what the kids have relied on for years remains the same: smart lyrics, carefully crafted hooks, and an odd mix of indie pop and punk (think Pixies meet the Talking Heads with some emo-ish punk tendencies on the side). That’s both a good and a bad thing for this record. For while there are standout tracks, there’s not a lot of growth on this record. For longtime fans, it will likely be a welcomed batch of new material. The uninitiated, however, might wonder what all the fuss is about.
First of all, let’s face some cold, hard facts. Poster Children’s best work is behind them. Any band that’s been around for 16 years in a somewhat isolated community like Champaign is going to have a hard time keeping things fresh. To make matters worse, while the rest of the alternative rock community was recycling the Seattle sound (think Candlebox), Poster Children was able to put just enough crunch into their guitars to make their unique brand of smart pop-punk (think Superchunk) a hot commodity for major labels. Songs like 1991’s “If You See Kay” landed the group a deal with Sire, and songs like 1995’s “He’s My Star” from Junior Citizen cemented their reputation. But when those major label records didn’t sell quite as swiftly as the powers that be would like, the band was summarily dropped.
Since then, their releases—most notably 1999’s New World Record—were solid but never really recaptured the spark of the band’s heyday. Like many of those post-1995 releases, No More Songs suffers from too many droning, guitar-heavy songs that are nothing more than filler. “Sugarfriend” has a post-punk rock feel to it but doesn’t measure up to the new kids on the block like the Strokes and, hell, even the Hives. The bone rumbling bass on “Now It’s Gone” wears on your last nerve by the time it wraps some three and a half minutes later. Ditto with “Different & Special Things”.
Yet, all is not lost. “Western Springs”, named after the Valentin brothers’ hometown in suburban Chicago, is an evaluation of college towns like Champaign. And while it’s also a bass-heavy number, it recalls fondly the Poster Children of old. The same can be said with the album’s fourth track, “Flag”, a tune that will surely make you wistful. “The Floor”, an ode of sorts to the Pixies, evokes “Where is My Mind?” while still standing on its own. The slide guitar work with Rose Marshack’s harrowing backing vocals over the bridge and verses has a gritty grace that could stand with the best of the band’s previous material.
Still, No More Songs is more a reminder of why you used to like the Poster Children than an argument for why they still matter. It’s a competent record with great extra material (check out the commentary track and video for “Western Springs” included), but it is material better described as admirable than astounding.