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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

Green Day insist on calling their new album a “punk rock opera.” So where there was once the Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow, and the Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia is now 21st Century Breakdown. Listening to the album, I can feel the occasional theatrical shift—such as in the title track, for example—but Green Day don’t really have a “rock opera,” punk or otherwise, in them. The Who, for all of their relative primitivism, had a broad palette of sound, and a songwriter in Pete Townshend whose emotional and poetical range of expression is far beyond what Billie Joe Armstrong and his brethren can muster. (Such is the Who’s influence of late that Green Day have recorded the band’s mini proto-opera “A Quick One, While He’s Away” as a bonus track.)

My point is that it’s probably not a good idea to draw attention to the album in that context, especially because of the ambitiously adolescent lyrics (“My generation is zero/I never made it as a working-class hero/21st century breakdown/I was once lost but never was found/I think I am losing what’s left of my mind/To the 20th- century deadline”). Armstrong’s staccato delivery has always been such that you only catch phrases here and there, which works with the band’s brawling pop attack to make powerfully packaged little statements.

But that shortfall of ambition aside, this is another set of strong songs from Green Day. The Paul McCartney gestures of the ballad “Last Night on Earth,” or the Rent-like opening of “Viva La Gloria” make me wince, but when the band unleash their grand, machine-like pummel, things work well because, as is their trademark, they tether that to an unerring sense for pop hooks. (“Before the Lobotomy” also comes off a bit peculiar, as if Armstrong should be singing it on the edge of the stage, in a spotlight, with hands over his heart and Playbills in the audience’s collective lap.) But producer Butch Vig proves to be a worthy collaborator when bringing out the same old shit at which Green Day have always succeeded, as in the drilling fuzz-blast of “Know Your Enemy” and “Christian’s In ferno.” (By contrast, if you hear a piano intro, run: “Restless Heart Syndrome” is an embarrassment in its opening stages.) The good news, though, is that Green Day aren’t writing for the people who have been following them all along, but for the latest crop of teens susceptible to their perennially appealing pseudo-punk. Why else would a 37-year-old singer name-check the “Class of ’13” in the title track?

The New York Dolls released their first album in 1973, when Billie Joe Armstrong was a year old. Produced by Todd Rundgren, it took the vision of the Rolling Stones and dragged it through the gutter at 50 miles an hour, knocking over every trash can in the way. It’s good-time rock & roll that anticipates punk (and some hair metal), so consider the band more of a bridge than true proto-punkers. (And throw away your rock histories when it comes to New York punk—Television were postpunk before punk even fully broke. Historical linearity is a distortion.)

But the Dolls are back, Todd Rundgren at the producer helm again, with ’Cause I Sez So. Or are they? The Dolls, championed by Morrissey, have been in the midst of a several-year comeback, but currently—via death’s unmistakable attrition—they’re down to just singer David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain. (Check out the remarkable 2005 documentary New York Doll, about late bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane, if you haven’t.) What’s most surprising about this album is that there seem to be no preconceptions about what the Dolls should or should not sound like. The title track, as well as “Muddy Bones,” and “Exorcism of Despair,” roar like the days of old. But elsewhere something like refinement creeps in, such as in the bouncing pop of “Lonely So Long” or the noir-ish spaghetti western “Temptation to Exist.”

Along the way, the current lineup apparently decided to put together the strongest set of songs they could muster, without an expectation to sound like the Dolls are supposed to. Jo hansen has a hand in every track, sometimes co-writing with Sylvain, sometimes with the newer members. But it all works, and works well. (This lineup’s first album, in 2006, sought to capitalize too much on the expectations of old; this one gets it right.) My only complaint is that they took their greatest recording ever, 1973’s glorious “Trash,” and retooled it as a reggae track. Bad idea.

The Eternal, Sonic Youth’s first album for Matador Records—and their first with ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold—does echo the past, but in a good way. It seems less indulgent than recent work, and calls to mind the tauter statements from Goo (1990) or Dirty (1992). My only full-on exception is to the lengthy “Anti-Orgasm,” which sprawls out in oddball parody (perhaps intentionally). Despite what anyone says, however, I have always found Sonic Youth to be a band of extraordinary moments that are often very far apart. (I think the haze of “cool” that surrounds them sometimes forms a protective layer over their frequent misfires.) But there are many “mo ments” here to glory in: the mounting groove of “Antenna,” occasionally undercut by shimmering and shaky ephemera; the hallmark unhinged barreling of “Sacred Trickster”; the pointed guitar-skronk of “Calming the Snake”; and the truly worthwhile 10 minutes of “Massage the History,” which, working in somewhat acoustic tones (and gentle noise), finds a lavish subtlety not always easy to come by for the band. There’s undoubtedly enough here to make a strong recommendation for fans of the past or even someone wanting to jump in for the first time and discover what the Youth have to offer.

 


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