Memo to the FBI: The next time you confiscate my computer, don’t mistake www.photosofteenagers.com for pornography. Sure, I’ll admit I cruised through it, checked out the pics of nubile 1970s and 1980s kids in bathing suits or making out on beds and at the boardwalk, but it’s not a fetish or anything. It was research, I swear.
But if you are looking to bust somebody, then go for Joseph Szabo, the artist who runs the website. An artist who has spent the last three decades photographing teenagers, he’s just the type to get Congress and parents’ groups all hot and bothered.
And while you’re at it, you might want to take in The Golden Republic, who’ve used Szabo’s shots on their past two records, at least for questioning. If anyone is nursing a fetish it’s gotta be them, though I don’t know if which is bigger, their interest in the wonder years or in ’70s and early ’80s nostalgia in general. Exhibit A: their new self-titled album. It’s out on Astralwerks this February, but could credibly pose as a cassette fished from a record store bargain bin two decades ago.
Szabo’s first collection of photographs, Almost Grown, was published in 1978, and documented a type of teenage lifestyle. The Golden Republic’s key members, singer/guitarist Benjamin Grimes and drummer Ryan Shank were born that year, so their interest in the era’s style and music doesn’t stem from any personal nostalgia but from a culture-wide nostalgia that reached its artistic pinnacle when Richard Linklater recreated it and made it clichéd in Dazed and Confused. Grimes and Shank, mere babes in the crib, missed out on the experience of actually being high schoolers back then, and they’re doing their damnedest to bring it back.
In his 2003 collection of photographs, Teenagers, Szabo focused on the late ’70s and ’80s teenage life (even including an introduction by Cameron Crowe of Fast Times at Ridgmont High fame). It’s as if he lost interest in capturing teenage culture by the time 1985 rolled around, and so have the Golden Republic. Their guitar lessons must have skipped Generation X and hair metal and headed straight to the Zeppelin mother lode. If it weren’t for the occasional sprinkling of Kenneth Earl Jankowski’s keyboards, the band would barely even crack the Reagan era.
The synthesizers shoulder into the picture primarily on “NYC” and “Robots”. “Robots” probably is the most catchy, danceable, funky song on the record, despite the fact that this band plays funk like they took lessons from Cake instead of George Clinton. In a set of choruses that barely relate to its placeholder verses, “NYC” and the power ballad following it, “Things We Do”, seem written entirely with the goal of getting a cameo on a soundtrack.
Even in their lyrics, the band indulges in the easy generalizations and hyperbole of those high schools and the terrible poetry we all have hidden back in our parents’ attics. On “Not My Kind”, Grimes and Jankowski sing, in chorus, “I wrote you a song, not cause I love you / I wrote it cause I hate you / I hate you I hate you”. Listening to this, and the trite O. Henry switch-up in the last chorus (Oh wait, you were lying before when you said “hate”? You actually meant “need”? Gee!), is like having an overwhelming flashback to the open-mic nights we’ve all tried so hard to forget.
Appropriately enough, one of the best songs on the album is the one that most successfully follows the Led Zeppelin blues-rock formula. “She’s So Cold”, with its chunky guitar and strutting rhythm, would be perfect for cruising around town with Slater. It’s the sort of song that could have tagged them as stoner-rock, alongside Dead Meadow and the Hellacopters, if the album’s production level weren’t so high, and so focused on putting the vocals up front rather than the guitar.
This focus on showing off the vocals doesn’t always help; it’s usually best not to understand the inanities behind most rock songs (see “Her stories are boring and stuff / she’s always calling my bluff” from Interpol). The TKO comes in the final track, “You Get Old”, and its repeated chorus, “I hope you realize / that you get old”. I’d like to think that this is just a bit of hipster irony or mocking self-awareness, but I don’t think that existed back in 1978.