With the exception of Green Day, pop-punk has returned to its cult-level status after a brief bump in the late ’90s thanks to the likes of Blink-182 and its bratty ilk. And while plenty of bands didn’t survive the purge as the postmillennial rock New World Order shifted to New New Wave, a handful of lifers who were pogo-ing on stage in ironic t-shirts, oversize shorts, and Vans sneakers long before it was cool are still alive and kicking, popular trends be damned.
F’rinstance, take Santa Barbara, CA, quintet Lagwagon. They’ve been mixing punk, pop, and hardcore since their 1992 debut, Duh — they were the first band signed to genre stalwart Fat Mike’s label Fat Wreck Chords, so they’ve got the cred — and they’ve been releasing solid, if unspectacular albums to a small but devoted horde of fans ever since. The band’s output has slowed of late, as they’ve released only one studio album — 2003’s Blaze — since 1998. Nevertheless, Lagwagon recorded two performances from the House of Blues in Hollywood waaaay back in May 2003, and those shows are now seeing the light of the record store on Live in a Dive, a treat for the band’s longtime fans, but a document of little interest to the casual fan who long since abandoned the scene for hipper pastures.
But give Lagwagon — currently, bassist Jesse Buglione, drummer Dave Raun, guitarists Chris Flippin and Chris Rest, and singer Joey Cape — credit for persevering. And on Live in a Dive they sound great; kudos to mixer/engineer Ryan Greene. Buglione’s bass and Raun’s drum kit anchor a rock solid, superfast (they do dabble in hardcore, after all) rhythm section, allowing “left” and “right” guitarists Rest and Flippin, respectively, to churn out their punky riffs. Meanwhile, Cape’s nasal vocals are often a ringer for Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge, and he’s met on every track by the crowd which seems to know every lyric…but also doesn’t sound overly enthusiastic at the prospect of attending a Lagwagon show — maybe the fans are protesting the, uh, lag in the band’s recent album output rate. On numerous occasions, the band has to resort to cheap applause tactics — mentioning marijuana, reminding fans that the show is being recorded for posterity — to get a rise out of the crowd. And it’s a shame the crowd isn’t more raucous, because for every serviceable pop-punk song (“Making Friends”, “Bombs Away”), Lagwagon busts out some genuinely clever songs. “Razor Burn” is a funny and poignant break-up song, with lyrics like “She has a new man / I have a new moustache” and “I grew this beard of shame”. “Falling Apart” is a clever take on that hoariest of rock song tropes, life on the road: “I’ll never be Ozzy / Onstage when I’m 50” Cape promises, before listing numerous ailments that would befall him (Osteoporosis, glaucoma and neurosis among them). It’s not just lyrics that the band nails when they try hard. On “Coffee and Cigarettes” and “Give It Back” Flippin and Rest veer into Sum-41-esque speed metal; sonically, it’s the band’s best incarnation.
Of course, the operative phrase above is “when they try hard”. Despite these flashes of near-brilliance, there are too many goofy, throwaway numbers on the album; they nearly sink the set. Who knows, maybe the band was feeling silly in the live environment. I can understand the naïve charm of “Beer Goggles”, an ode to hitting on less-than-attractive women, from their first album (a tune they rarely play these days), but hardcore/screamo parody “Mister Bap” isn’t worth the 40 seconds it takes to listen to it. Meanwhile, “Coconut” is a harmless exercise in white-boy island reggae, and the less said about the toilet-themed cover of “Mama Said Knock You Out” (here, “Back One Out”), the better. These dumb songs make the perils-of-drinking-and-driving cautionary tale/closing track “Stokin’ the Neighbors” even more of a buzzkill than it already is.
That’s Lagwagon in a nutshell, though: clever, puerile, thoughtful, and oblivious. While the band’s time may have passed — hey, the music scene is fickle — they’re still passionate when they put their mind to it, and they’ve still got their fans…even if those fans need a little cajoling to get excited these days.