Perhaps my ’90s adolescence prevents me from fully accepting the strange beast known as modern rock radio. It always seemed to me that the “modern rock” moniker was the endpoint of the genre that began as underground music, became college rock, and finally hit its commercial peak as grunge and alternative rock. Not that the Toadies and Veruca Salt were the high point of American popular music, but there’s something about the modern rock landscape of depressing post-grunge, hideous metal-rap-pop-funk hybrids, and purposely immature pop-punk that strikes me as the awful last gasps of a dying radio format. “Modern rock” is the Velveeta of musical genres, a totally synthetic product that manages to be both bland and disgusting all at once. With that said, Wakefield’s new album Which Side Are You On? contains some of the worst tendencies of modern rock radio and still manages to feature songs that I don’t necessarily love, but would not mind hearing on the radio.
“C’mon Baby”, promoted on the single predicting cover sticker, is a good example of Wakefield creating something pleasurable with lame material. The track, like all of Which Side Are You On? is over-produced, filled with empty guitar riffing, a totally unnecessary rap breakdown, and the emo-influenced whining of their melodramatic lead singer. Still, Wakefield has learned a few Cheap Tricks, balancing out the uninspired rock and roll riffage with a dose of power-pop smarts. There may not be much holding these songs together, but the band adds enough hooks and inspired instrumentation to keep the album consistently listenable and, for the most part, somewhat enjoyable. A liberal use of synthesizers provides a little new wave flavor to help separate the otherwise generic Wakefield from its peers. (Of course, of all the little sonic details that Wakefield uses to flesh out its songs, the one that I love the best is the triumphant blast of baroque, Brian May-style guitar that enlivens the catchy-but-dull “Quietly Complaining”.)
Lyrically, Which Side Are You On? is pretty dreadful. On “New Game”, Wakefield tries to make political points, complete with obligatory Dubya samples. The radically different in tone “After School Special” describes the narrator’s crush on a “girl who falls for other girls”, a subject that would be interesting and a little risqué had not it already been the subject of one Reel Big Fish single and two Ben Affleck movies. Plus, at least Gigli had the dignity not to use the phrase, “Welcome to the After School Special of my life.” The closing “Shrine” goes beyond bad, and into the creepy. In “Shrine”, the sensitive acoustic ballad portion of the album, the narrator describes how he is dedicating a shrine for a girl he loves, which is either a commentary on the “muse theory” of artistic creation as featured in Robert Graves’s seminal The White Goddess or a song that is trying to make stalking seem cute. I’m betting on the latter.
Truthfully, Wakefield doesn’t really seem to be sufficiently into the different sub-genres that proliferate on modern rock radio. The band members never really sound bratty enough to do the pop-punk numbers, or angry enough to sell the grungy numbers, or pathetic enough for the emo-ish songs. In fact, they sound the best when they aren’t aiming for anything deep and are just fooling around with new wave-inspired goofs. “Only One”, for example, directly lifts the opening riff to “Jessie’s Girl” and is better for it. In fact the song loses something when it descends into the generic pop-punkery of the chorus. The album highlight “Girl with a Beat”, which exudes a Cars-like vibe, is a bouncy, uncluttered number that does away with the antiseptic guitar riffs featured on the rest of the album, and bounces along with a fun, danceable rhythm. It doesn’t mean anything, of course, but, for once, it doesn’t intend to mean something.
Of course, even the modern rock style numbers sound pretty decent. Wakefield has the big hooks and an ability to maneuver between various styles that could help the band break it big. Still, I can’t help but think that Wakefield is trying to squeeze into a format that will ultimately halt its artistic development.