American Hi-Fi is not a group to reshape the way we hear music. They’re simply a good time.
My friend and former PopMatters music reviewer, Darryl G. Wright, coined a term, which, alas, doesn’t seem to have caught on with the general public. In describing pop punk bands such as Blink-182, Sum 41 and Total Wink 853 (okay, so the last one is made up), he confided in me that they should be called “ponk”, which would be a merging of the two words. It was meant to be dismissive, as I think Darryl was referring to the sound of fans' brains rattling around in their heads as they bopped to the music (or something like that), but you can see where he was going with the descriptor. Ponk music is generally pretty generic: the stuff that appeals to the lowest common denominator and sells million of units. I’m not a fan of the genre.
When Blink-182’s idea of a good rock move in a live setting is to use the f-word lit up in fire as a backdrop, you know that the genre sets itself up to be kicked in the rear end. Not that bands of this ilk probably care what the critics think, though. They’re too busy pretending to be David Lee Roth, while we’re too busy looking like Elvis Costello, which is also my lead-in to discussing Boston pop punk, erm, “ponk” band American Hi-Fi. You see, there’s a song called “Allison” on their latest disc and their first in four years, Blood and Lemonade. And if you don’t see the connection between that song title and Elvis Costello, please stop reading this and only come back when you’ve given My Aim Is True a good thousand spins or so. Note: Yes, I know Costello’s song only has one letter "l", and they’re not the same song. Here’s irony for ya: American Hi-Fi actually toured with Elvis Costello back in the day, so maybe their song is strictly homage?
Ahem, so anyhow ... American Hi-Fi. You may remember them from the early aughts for having hits with “Flavor of the Weak” and “The Geeks Get the Girls”. The band is also known for getting dropped by major labels with an itchy trigger finger (those would be Island and Maverick). So, say what you will about American Hi-Fi, you gotta admire the fact that they have the tenacity and balls to retreat to the indies again for their last two releases, including this one. But here’s the deal: Blood and Lemonade is great. And astonishingly so. With this album, American Hi-Fi put the word “power” before pop punk, and, you may laugh, but there are moments on the disc where the group sounds an awful lot like Cheap Trick from that band’s late ‘70s heyday. Now, American Hi-Fi is the type of outfit that isn’t going to win any major songwriting Grammys anytime soon -- which is not a criticism -- and, certainly, the sound of Blood and Lemonade is alluringly homogeneous, but, man, does this thing rock out. Let me put it this way. Sometimes, I like going out (preferably with a fetching young lass) for a meal at a fancy restaurant and dressing up for it. But, most times, I’m a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy who you’ll see occasionally haunting the burger joint down the street from where I live. American Hi-Fi's music is the sonic equivalent of a burger and fries. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
What’s more, Blood and Lemonade, towards the end, shows some signs of musical growth. “Portland” sounds remotely like a Green Day song crossed with ‘60s pop, and even ends with the words “speed on”, which seems to me to be an obvious nod to Guided By Voices’ “Motor Away”, as that song does the exact same thing. And final track “No Ordinary Life”, shockingly, resembles an amped up version of an Elliot Smith tune. At about this point, you’ll forgive the fact that American Hi-Fi share a few members with Miley Cyrus’s backing band. Well, maybe almost. Anyhow, the rest of the record is pretty standard pop punk, but it’s actually memorable pop punk. Opener “Armageddon Days”, with its lyrics, “take a shot at something real” and has heft and power, not to mention a chorus that encourages listeners to sing along. Single “Golden State” offers guitars that crunch and crackle, and there’s some retro pop-infused flavor going on in the refrain. “Allison” has a Spaghetti Western feel to it in its opening guitar lick, before turning into an anthem that could have come out of the ‘90s alternarock boom.
Wall to wall, Blood and Lemonade doesn’t have a weak track, though you do wish that the group got a little more experimental earlier on, rather than towards the end of the disc. There’s some real gems hidden at the back that elevate this from your ordinary, run of the mill, cookie cutter pop punk. However, in saying that, I’m not dismissing the rest of the effort. There are some really great songs on it, and you have to wonder why this is coming out towards the fall, as there are excellent summer jams on the record. Maybe the band is getting the shaft from their label again? Who knows? Still, Blood and Lemonade is delightful from start to finish and there are songs here such as “Amnesia” where you’ll want to slam your head against the wall -- in a good way. This LP simply just rawks. And, you know, you need that in your diet every now and then. I mean, if you listen to Radiohead and the ilk all of the time, you’d probably be a bookish nerd without a social life.
You need bands such as American Hi-Fi in your collection just to balance things out and give levity to your listening enjoyment. It’s pop, sure, but, man, does this thing ever sparkle. You can deride American Hi-Fi for playing “the game” to whatever commercial ends and for having hits, but Blood and Lemonade is wildly energetic and proof that there’s potency in the pop punk genre. Call it “ponk” if you must, but, as far as this stuff goes, I can support this. That might seem like faint praise, but it is what it is. American Hi-Fi are not a group to reshape the way we hear music, they’re simply a good time. So if you’re looking for something to go with that burger and fries, may I recommend Blood and Lemonade? It’s quite the tasty treat.