It’s been a while since I reviewed an album here on the pages of Dying Scene, in part because sometimes life gets in the way, but mostly because sometimes you get to feeling like there’s nothing you can say about an album that you haven’t said dozens of times before. (Seriously, how many singers wear their heart on their sleeves? How many rapid-fire snare drums and chugging guitars and angsty vocalists can one describe without sounding redundant?) I’ve started getting the itch again lately, but I wanted to try something a little different (for me, anyway). And what better album to try something different with than Home Street Home, the soundtrack of a musical written by NOFX’s iconic frontman/bass player/debaucher-in-chief Fat Mike Burkett. If Fatty can go out on a limb, so can I, right?
So without any further ado, here are my thoughts on Home Street Home, written track-by-track in real-time on my first listen through the album. (In the interest of full-disclosure, I did have it on in the background while I was cooking dinner the other night, but with my seven-year-old within earshot, I quickly determined that was a bad idea. You’ll see why).
1. “Monsters” – (:25 Acoustic intro, pretty non-descript so far. Female voice (Stacey Dee playing the part of Sue, our main character) singing about mommy saying there are no monsters under her bed. Drums kick in around :45. My knowledge of musical instruments is quite limited, but that thing in the background (melodica?) sounds like the thing from the Nightmare on Elm Street song. 1:30 – More talk of the girl convinced that the monsters she sees at night are real. Wait…I think we’re taking an ugly turn here. 1:40-1:55 HOLY SHIT, SKIBA! Okay, let me back up. Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba makes an appearance as the girl’s father, convincing her that there are no monsters, only Daddy… this is fucking creepy… 1:57-2:02 Skiba “Don’t you wanna give a good night kiss to Daddy?” Oh no…oh this is bad. This is very bad. 2:09- Tempo starts to pick up and distorted guitar starts to kick in. Damn, this really does feel like a musical. 3:00 – now we slow down and the piano comes in. This poor girl. This poor, poor girl. 3:19-3:29 – Our girl is packing up and getting out of Dodge – “I’ll need my razor blades and a warm jacket / and I’m taking this gun…” The “Nightmare on Elm Street” vibe comes back again.
If you’re keeping score at home, it seems our sixteen-year-old female protagonist has been getting sexually abused by her father, and is now “making that the last time” it happens. Not sure if she’s going to kill him, or just take off. But I am sure that that song creeped me out. Haven’t had a visceral reaction like that to a song in a while. Kudos to Fat Mike.
2. “Three String Guitar” – Now we’ve got a guy singing (John Carey). Slow, plodding acoustic song that has the vibe of “My Orphan Year.” This kid sounds like a young Fat Mike.
3. “Urban Campers” – Sort of an up-tempo, rockabilly-ish vibe at the beginning. Call and response thing with the “young Fat Mike” taking the lead. Did I mention he sounds like a young Fat Mike? I’m gonna refer to him as Young Fat from here on out. This one is a theme song for the gutter punks. We’ve got a second male vocalist that sounds like a young Tim Armstrong, except a tad more comprehendible. I’ll call him Young Tim from here on out (though his real name is Beer Gut – I’m sensing that’s not his biological name, however…). But only a tad. 1:17 – Young Fat – “I won’t work for food, but I’ll fuck for pay.” Ah, we’ve entered the prostitution portion of the evening. Halfway through the third song and we’ve got father-daughter rape and male prostitution. Don’t bring the kids out to this one…
4. “Fecal Alcohol Syndrome” – Another uptempo song, sounds kinda like Old Man Markley. Young Tim takes the reins here. 0:22 – “mother drank when I was in her womb, that’s why I got diagnosed with fecal alcohol syndrome.” Oh Fat Mike, you and your puns… Boy, Young Tim’s mom was a mess. “I was a newborn alcoholic with a fermented brain.”
5. “Three Against Me” – Slow piano ballad, at least to start. We’ve got a male singer, but he doesn’t sound like Young Mike or Young Tim (in real life, his name is Billy Bouchard). It does sound like a kid who got the shit kicked out of him at home, but this time not by mom or dad, but by his three brothers. “No one calls it hate when it’s your brothers / it’s called tough love and accepted by the neighbors. It’s not called a hate crime / it’s just what my brothers did to pass the time.” 1:45 – “Mustard up the nose when I was sleeping / wake up with Tabasco in my eye.” Good god, that sounds painful. Stays a slow piano ballad throughout.
6. “High Achievers” – More piano to start. Female vocalist, different from the earlier one, though. :40 – We’ve got a ragtime feel going now, and we’ve already got Ben Franklin and Marquis de Sade name-dropped as famous drug users. I think you see where this one is going. Lemme tally the names we end up with getting dropped as being drug enthusiasts: Sigmund Freud, Grover Cleveland, Thomas Edison, Einstein, Carl Sagan, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, The Beatles, Van Gogh, Lance Armstrong, Aaron Sorkin, Jack Kerouac, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe. I feel like I missed a few, but I can’t quite understand Young Tim 100% of the time. “When everyone is doing drugs, it makes the world a better place to be.” Long story short, this is our three main “street urchins” trying to recruit our abuse victim runaway from earlier into the world of “better living through chemistry.” Oh wait, I get it “high achievers.” It’s funny because drugs. Yawn. This one doesn’t do much for me, but then, I don’t do drugs, so….
7. “Gutter Tarts” – Ooh, sort of an uptempo, textbook NOFX intro. :20 “I’ll suck an ass for fifty bucks!” Well, that one kinda sneaks up on you! A pro-prostitution anthem! Hooray! “I’m getting fucked, I’m sucking cock! I’m licking nuts!…And getting paid!” Yeah…again…don’t bring your kids to this one!
8. “Bad Decision” – Oh hey, it’s Frank Turner! This one’s a bit of a segue that clocks in at :42 seconds ling. It’s about making…you guessed it…bad decisions. If this is our segue to the world of bad decisions, I’m scared, because what the hell was the last half-dozen songs?!?
9. “Missing Child” – Another piano intro. Sounds sad. Another female vocalist (Lena Hall or Christie Wynn depending on which version you have and, truthfully, I’m not sure which version I have), this time the mother of our abused runaway, begging for her daughter’s safe return. God, this singer really sells it. 1:10-1:20 – “did I protect her, did I do all I could? Is she gone forever like her childhood?” Now I’m sad again. Stomach punch of a song, but I’m not sure if that’s because you feel like the mom’s really sad, or that she’s that fucking clueless what was happening in her own house.
10. “I’m Suicide” – Our runaway, Sue, again. :42 “I was eleven when I got put on the pill…” God damn. 1:00 – “I was a prostitute who wasn’t getting paid.” We’ve got dad piping in that she was “such a good girl who always did what she was told.” I think I’m going to throw up. 1:20 – Ah, the mom chimes in again, saying she’s ashamed of our runaway for being such a flirt. Now I’m going to be sick again. I knew mom was up to no good. I’m starting to genuinely dislike Skiba and the mom, which is not the intended consequence.
11. “Let’s Get Hurt” – Another ragtimey, New Orleans feeling song in the vein of “I Want To Be Loved By You.” This time an ode to whips and chains. “I wanna be brained and chained and drained, harshly profained by you.” 1:00 – Ah, it seems our runaway has become a dominatrix. Makes sense. Now she’s the one in control of her situation.
12. “Safe Words” – Three chord punk ode to safe words. Kinda funny. Seems like a NOFX song. “Asparagus…Sarah Palin…Sacramento…Pearl Necklace?” Holy shit…now I know what a “chili dog” is. HAHAHAHAHAHA. I could have lived without knowing that, and now I can’t stop giggling. Goddamn you Fat Mike. I’m delightedly horrified by this song.
13. “Another Bad Decision” – Oh good, Frank’s back. Had to wash that dirty taste out of my mouth (which will make sense when you listen to “Safe Words”). God, I still feel fucking dirty.
14. “Seeping Beauty (Reprise)” – Slow piano ballad, as sung by Sue. This one’s about cutting; self-harm for the purpose of “release and inner peace.” I feel uncomfortable again. Even though this one has female vocalists, you can tell it was written by Fat Mike. I feel like that’s a recurring theme here; Mike very much has a cadence and tempo that hits right in his wheelhouse.
15. “Bearly Legal” – Now we’ve got two guys professing their love for each other. They respect each other for who they are, in spite of their faults. Sort of a three-chord pop punk song (but like good pop punk, not new pop punk). You know it’s love when it involves KY and a fist… Oh, “Bearly Legal,” as in BEARly legal. I get it. Took me a minute there…
16. “Because I Want To” – We’ve gone from parental sexual abuse to prostitution to drug use to S&M to self-mutilation to KY and fisting to…graffiti? Seems like we could have gone the other…oh wait…1:25 – tempo picks up, and now we’ve got Sue listing all the taboo things she’s going to do because she wants to and frankly, because why the fuck not. Again with the control piece. Sue seems to be in a better place, having gone from wanting to kill herself to trying to move on…because she wants to. We’ve reached a place of empowerment. Wait…is she going back to her mom and dad?
17. “Life…Oh What a Drag: – Yup…she’s going back with at least her father. The rest of Sue’s ragtag bunch of misfits are now trying to move on without Sue. Wait…no, but they are burning their place of living down. “Destroy so we can create…” I feel like this is going to be a powerful visual in the stage production…but I feel like you need to see it, because I can’t quite tell where we’re going here…
18. “The Agony of Victory” – starts as a bit of a funeral dirge, but moves on to a slow-building punk song that ends up in a classically NOFXian place. Another ode to the misfits, the vagabonds, the weirdos. “Let’s just fucking drink and be alive.” Big, celebratory, nay triumphant group chorus outro, as well there should be.
Okay, a few parting thoughts. I was really, really skeptical about Home Street Home. I don’t know why, in hindsight…because I really, really like Home Street Home. Like I said above, one or two of the songs, particularly “High Achievers” seem more than a little bit like NOFX retreads, but maybe that stands to reason. But the bulk of the album is more than solid. Fat Mike and his co-writers Jeff Marx (a Tony Award winner for Avenue Q) and Soma Snakeoil (Fat Mike’s AVN Award-winning girlfriend) are able to cut right to the core of what it means to be a hopeless, disaffected youth with a shitty upbringing.
Despite the names being different, it’s obvious that our writers are telling stories very near and dear to their respective hearts; such authenticity wouldn’t be possible otherwise. There is a substantial amount of Home Street Home that’s uncomfortable both in terms of lyrics and in terms of subject matter. Some of that blow is lessened by the occasional upbeat music, but the album is full of “stomach punch” moments; those times when the lyrics resonate a little too close and suck the wind right out of the room. The fact that the late Tony Sly is featured in the chorus on “I’m Suicide” is probably the biggest of those, though it might go unnoticed by many. In penning Home Street Home, Fat Mike is able to convey a sense of personal honesty that’s maybe been missing from a lot of the NOFX catalog at times (save for songs like “My Orphan Year”).