The Bangs: Call and Response

The Bangs
Call and Response
Kill Rock Stars

Yeah I know, it’s a drag to read samey record critics praise the simpleminded rawk or the unadorned fun of yet another samey indie EP. Today the highbrow-lowbrow tastes of the scribblers are matched exactly by a new generation of bands practically hand-reared by dog-eared Lester Bangs anthologies and two hastily practiced guitar chords. Thus the Bangs. I can’t tell whether their name evokes a haircut, distant gunshots, or Lester, but their self-described sound (Go-Go’s crossed with Black Sabbath) has consistently resurrected a dead party or boiled up a punk basement. Their sound isn’t exactly unique, often invoking easy comparisons to the Donnas, the Muffs, or Bikini Kill. But their first two albums (Tiger Beat [1998] and Sweet Revenge [2000]) were a blast, an unholy alliance between semi-pro punk and amateur pop. The Bangs are in the game for the sheer joy of rocking out, not out of political or genderfucking necessity. They don’t encourage pious critics to kowtow to their righteous rage, nor do they encourage separatist snobs to swarm their gigs. And unless you’ve seen them live, it’s tough to distinguish between bassist/vocalist Maggie Vail and guitarist/vocalist Sarah Utter, since they both kinda yell off-key with equal intensity.

So, after five years (and four different drummers!) rummaging through trash pails of punk-pop music for some good hooks and not-so-great lyrics, they’ve once again plugged their talents together for some memorable, righteous noise on the new EP Call and Response. At 16 minutes, the new EP’s about as long as Maggie Vail’s coffee break (I’m guessing her day job as Kill Rock Stars publicist is as enviable as it is tough). But as the six fast tunes kick down your tympanum, you’ll quickly notice two passable groovy rockers (“New Scars” and “Leave it Behind”), one sorta-slow love song (“Kinda Good”), and three new classics (“Call and Response”, “I Want More”, and “Dirty Knives”). The classics you’ll die for. (And if you buy the vinyl edition, you even get a free Undertones cover! )

The title track sets things off with a lot of speedy incomprehensible yelling (good thing a lyric sheet’s included), but you gotta shout along anyway. “Bite your angry tongue — is that what you would do? / Just play dead look straight ahead is that what I should do?” It’s a sorta war-cry against apathy and conformity — a time-honored tradition in punk — and it’s just as fast and sloppy as those old Bikini Kill quickies such as “I Like Fucking”. Things mellow down a tad (I said a tad) with the mildly creepy, groovy-hooky “New Scars” (“Got a list I need to do / Got ten new scars I wanna give to you”) and the down-comforter puppy love ballad “Kinda Good”. Indeed, “Kinda Good” has a shocking abundance of lyrical banality (“Say a prayer in the shadows / Mix the tears up with the sunshine / We can paint a perfect rainbow / From your heart right back to mine”), but the no-nonsense sneaker-scraping-the-sand title chorus sticks with you anyway. Funny thing about lowbrow love-punk: sometimes banality rubs up against the sublime to create nifty little tunes like this. After my seventh or eighth listen, it’s popped up in a couple of my nostalgic college-freshman dreams, which means that (a) “college rock” ain’t dead, and (b) the Bangs have a heart of gold. (And don’t get me wrong: the tune rocks too.) Oh yeah, “Leave It Behind” is a loud-but-hooky cheating-boyfriend tune, and the best parts are the flaming-youth guitar fills.

Which leaves my own two favorite tunes here: “I Want More” and “Dirty Knives”. Brave punch-drunk guitars and some seriously clamorous shouting turn “I Want More” a hello-party call’n’response thrill ride. What’s more, the lyrics are a simple and angry feminist take on consumerism, the sort of antidote the Generation-Y kids require before their parents dole out the new credit cards. “Saw it on the TV then I bought it from the store. / Got some bad credit but I want more!” Not as recklessly Marxist as the Gang of Four, granted, but the Bangs ain’t in the game to play up their book-learnin’, are they?

“Dirty Knives” keeps slapping me up at the oddest moments, which means the catchy singalong chorus is a veritable hootenanny of hypersensitive peacenik righteousness. (“The graves we dig so deep / With secrets that we keep / We cry ourselves to sleep.”) I’m heartened every day by how eagerly our road-punk scribblers are mixing up personal politics with hatred of the permanent war cooked up by the Foggy Bottom’s spineless jarhead wannabe’s. At least that’s what it sounds like here. Why else would they hook this song around the opening riffs from Sabbath’s “Paranoid”? And if the dirty knives and open graves in the lyric are just an overly symbolic mock-up of some diary entries, then why do they want us all to sing along to it? And why the panicked screaming at the song’s close?

Thus the EP ends abruptly, with a neck-snapping full-tilt lost chord. In the grand tradition of punk quickies, you’re left hungering for more. In which case keep checking the Kill Rock Stars website for a gig near you . . .

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