I’m staring down the barrel of the end of the year, looking for answers to questions I started asking at the beginning. The taste parade has begun, where every music fan with a nominal platform has slithered out of the woodwork to thoroughly and righteously exploit it. That’s why I spend December contemplating on music I liked in March to decide whether it holds up to the magnanimous task of being on an overwrought listicle. Sometimes, there’s some joyous rediscovery– a hidden favorite that got missed in the shuffle, and sometimes you put your ear to the ground and come across a revelation. But, every year, there’s that one album. The inescapable one. The one that fights its way onto the vast majority of lists, both punk and mainstream. In the business, we call that ‘making a splash,’ because people who write for free for free websites are self-important curators in a lifelong mime act called Professional Writer. This year, I took a break from self-importance (or perhaps just wallowed in it) and took a step back to see what punk rock was really all about in 2015. What defined it? Who had their fingers on the pulse? It didn’t take much searching to know the answer was Beach Slang.
The boys from Philly are everywhere. They’ve got a decently positive review on Pitchfork, features on Noisey, and are included in Rolling Stone as the token representative of punk rock. And it’s not just media coverage either. No, this is a band that has vaulted past ‘cool up and comer’ (sorry, more industry talk) and dived right into the varied but exclusive league of bands you get tattoos for. That’s all pretty wild for a band with two EPs and a full length, right? But hey, that’s what you get when you hit the bullseye of the zeitgeist, you make a splash.
Don’t get me wrong though, because a lot of this is going to come off as the kind of bitter, punk rock police, armchair critic shit that seems to be the only thing that can keep the kids united in their malcontent. But, I want to make it clear– I like Beach Slang. They can write a hook, they have an undeniable passion for their craft, and three good-to-great contributions to the canon, but as we speak, they’re hammering the nail in the coffin for heart-on-the-sleeve punk rock.
The kind of punk rock that is both melodic and emotional, without being quite pop punk or emo, is often referred to in journalistic longhand as heart-on-the-sleeve punk rock– bringing to mind a singer who howls confessional lyrics with his eyes closed to the chugging of distorted guitars. Bands more easily sorted with genre conventions have built the genre; we have the Replacements, Avail, Leatherface, and Jawbreaker, along with many more who acted as early engineers of this style. In the background of skate punk and pop punk, it began to take hold as a more serious and curiously macho style of punk rock– where punk bands reasserted their masculinity, and emotional and literary merit, by growing beards and adopting a gravelly persona, in stark contrast to the smooth skin and nasal whine that punk had become known for.
Punk rock is a series of reactions that are interesting in retrospect to watch. In looking at this microcosm, you can see it react both to itself and the outside world. Now, I’m not saying any of these bands did anything consciously to reflect their era and place in punk history. It’s all the result of natural selection. Hot Water Music wasn’t reacting against a perspective, they were just making awesome music. Chuck Ragan didn’t develop a raspy growl because he was tired of the genre being misrepresented, maaan. No, all of this took hold because of all the bands that were making noise (and the great thing about punk is that there are always a lot of bands making noise), a handful had the right idiosyncrasies at the right time.
Now, I mentioned masculinity earlier. And I know that’s kind of a hot button word, because, well, everyone gives a whole lot of shits about gender politics. I should clarify now that this is not a gender politics article, this is a punk rock one. But, I think the notion of masculinity, in a weird way is tied pretty tightly to the rise of the heart-on-your-sleeve punk rock. Which is to say, it’s all tied up in power. We can moan and groan about privilege all day, but I think we can all agree we want some of it. Its my personal theory that a lot of the reasons this heartfelt style of punk rock became dominant in the early aughties was because it presented a new and modern way to reclaim masculinity for young men in punk bands. It was rough and raw music that was heartfelt, a meshing of aesthetics that allowed for what could’ve been a paradox in a different time: the lumberjack as in touch with his emotions as the minor pentatonic. It’s not a far leap to group emotionality with intelligence. These new bands were saying that you could be smart and emotionally intelligent without giving up entirely on traditional masculine aesthetics. Which might all fall (rightfully) on deaf ears for female punks, who still only have a ghetto of like-genitaled musicians to identify with, but for a lot of young men growing up in an age where feminism was an accepted part of their subculture (at least in theory, anyway), this sound allowed them to identify more fully with something progressive, while being able to update the scene’s own vision of masculinity without forgoing it completely.
So, what does this all have to do with Beach Slang?
Well, bands upon bands have at least played nominally in this style. You probably like a lot of them. The Menzingers, The Flatliners, Make Do And Mend, etc., etc. I don’t mean this as a way to reduce a lot of very talented musicians to my theory on punk rock development, thereby putting them squarely in a conceptual box. All of the bands that you could say were part of this style were also developing other ideas, twisting ideas, and throwing them out altogether. But, if we’re going to talk about punk rock as a whole, we’ve got to get rid of the microscope and bring out the Hubbard and stare at it from afar. We’re looking at the big picture here. Everything I’ve already said about idiosyncrasies and possible gender politics is conjecture, and the basis of this conjecture lies in subtext. If I were an English teacher, I’d tell you that it’s all about reading between the lines.
When I use phrases like ‘hit the bullseye,’ I’m not just indulging in store brand cliches, because nothing sums up punk rock’s It Girl better than imagery of an exact and calculated hit. With Beach Slang, everything is on the nose. The songs are pumped full of purple lyrics and turns of phrase to suggest that the band wants to be seen as a poetic powerhouse. But, with Beach Slang– subtext is dead. They are young and alive or drunk and alive and they are not mistakes and they are not afraid to be loud. Now, these aren’t new sentiments of course, and a lot of bands have tread this territory unscathed, so why can’t Beach Slang?
There’s a beautiful moment on The Menzingers’ On the Impossible Past in the song “Casey.” The chorus revs up with the anthemic line: “Me and Casey, used to get drunk before we did the dishes.” I like to believe everyone knew the story when the Menzingers scream their chorus; it’s the kind of imagery that is a direct line to a time and place. It brings to mind early twenties shenanigans and friendships that were deep and involved and might have only lasted a season. The Menzingers were singing about being young and alive.
Beach Slang, on the other hand, mines that subtext for the gold and puts in right in the display window, as if they know it’s the feeling for which everyone’s shopping. They don’t waste breath for slice of life dalliances– they bring out the gold in big, anthemic, shout-along choruses and let the verse carry on with figurative language and cheap imagery. It might come down to style and nothing else, but for a band that likes words so much, I wonder if they’re content with the emotional equivalent of sloganeering.
Adding to my malaise, I can say without a doubt that lead singer and songwriter James Alex loves words. On one of the Beach Slang Facebook posts, he writes: “All I’ve ever wanted to be was a writer, to write some things that mean something to someone. I don’t know, maybe I’m starting to figure that stuff out.” So, take a step back from the microscope and let’s look at it through the Hubbard again. This is a band that doesn’t just want to be The Replacements, but also Faulkner. But, instead of forging their identity as a lyrically intense band like Jawbreaker that writes in a fairly unique, but poetic way, they settle into a cadence popular with a lot of young, undeveloped writers who believe the height of writing is to sound as much like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett as you can. And I love both of those guys, like, a lot. But they churned out gutter poetry by keeping it in the gutter, breeding gritty stories of a time and place while never abandoning basic prose economics. When, James Alex sings, “The punks are wired and these records feel tough. It’s loud and it’s wild, but I swear it feels soft,” I’m left with the impression that the only words that really matter to Beach Slang are the ones that sound good together, at the expense of meaning or anything else so fleeting it can’t be nailed to a bullseye and hit from a foot away.
But again, I like Beach Slang. They’re a good band. And if that’s all they were, that’s all I’d say. But, they’re not just a good band, they’re a movement now and they’re everywhere. They’ve developed a cult of personality around themselves, one of which I think they’ve at least had a hand in creating. They’d probably kick the ground coyly at the accusation, but this is the same band that posts black and white photos with their own lyrics captioned beneath them. Maybe this is what the zeitgeist is though, and I’ve still got my eyes pressed up to the microscope. I’m in my mid-twenties now, so maybe my time as a tastemaker has come to an end. But, if this is what is tapping into the hearts of minds of young punks, it makes me scared for the future. I hate to use that phrase, because it conjures up old men kept alive with nothing more than nostalgia, but when I see Beach Slang diluting an art form to its subtext and bandying them about as anthems, I wonder if literacy is on its way out. Maybe the millennials, with their Facebooks and texting, don’t want anything more than direct affirmations. Be young and alive. Be drunk and alive. Marry and reproduce. Obey.
Whatever happens, whatever trend catches on or doesn’t, I have a feeling we’ll all still be here. Music and time don’t play well with monoliths. In respect to their output, I’d like to leave you with one more thought, before jettisoning off to wallow and moan in the muck of your own thoughts on punk in 2015– what Beach Slang does is art. Yes, no matter what words we throw at them, no matter how many sentences we construct to prove ourselves above them, they’re still art. And I think that’s a good thing to remind ourselves of every once in awhile. We have the means to mainline music like no other generation before us. We can consume like no other, swallowing tunes like they’ll keep air in our lungs or food in our bellies. We consume so hard and fast that I’m afraid that sometimes it becomes nothing more than entertainment. Art and entertainment need not be mutually exclusive, but I think what makes the difference is engagement. We have precious little serious criticism in our scene– the kind of talk that seeks to dismantle a song with language and see what keeps it ticking. In an unpretentious punk rock sort of way, it almost makes sense. We, as a culture, view art as an elitist endeavor, and punk rock is most definitely not elite. But for every time you shrug your shoulders and say something’s okay and offer nothing more or like a band and don’t know why, you’re doing punk rock a disservice. Engage with your art. Take it apart, see what ticking mechanism drives you up the wall or hits that perfect rhythm. Art criticism doesn’t make punk rock elite, it keeps it from becoming disposable.
So, I don’t love Beach Slang. But I still like them. I did my hero’s journey through their music and discovered it doesn’t resonate how I’d like. The promise of their early EPs was grand in a short format, but if I know anything about perspective, bloated can be mistaken for grand at the right angle. I’ll still be a little annoyed when a breathless fan tries to spread their gospel, but if they play a song, I’ll probably smile and sing the words I remember.
Add Beach Slang to My Radar