Jesse Lacey thinks in decimals and dollars. He's the cause to all my problems
Happy new year, y'all. 2008 means the dawn of What Was it Anyway?, a blog set up by Mr Dan Weiss, in imitation of Stylus' old On Second Thought column, a feature that was dedicated to re-appraising the dominant critical evaluation of a specific album. This week, you can catch me giving Everclear's mid '90s zenith an overdue reevaluation.
This past week or so, I've been trying to get an article on Brand New published. If you remember, I quite like these guys, and since they were touring Australia with the Big Day Out festival, I figured I'd try to get a preview of the show for a fairly major local publication. The publication was down, but Brand New wasn't ("We are not doing shoots or interviews at this time," their manager told me via email), and so it looks like my story (finished without band input) will go to that great reject pile in the sky. Jesse Lacey's bitched about doing interviews before, and so, well, it's a shame. I'll live.
Their show, at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney Thursday night, was one I could not go to; I was at home sick. If I had not been sick, I would have been at work. My buddy Bonnie "Prince" Tyler (we've discussed him before) did manage to get there, however, and he obligingly provided Screw Rock 'n' Roll with a review.
Screw Rock 'n' Roll Presents: Bonnie "Prince" Tyler reviews Brand New at the Enmore Theatre, Jan 24 2008
When you think about it, the struggle to determine what's emo and what isn't is really quite unnecessary. As much as bands will try to deny their emo-ness, and fans will try to claim or deny the emo tag for their favorite act, you only really need to go to a band's show to see if it's emo or not. Checking the crowd outside the Enmore that night, it wasn't hard to determine that Brand New is most certainly emo.
They may try, consciously or otherwise, to distance themselves from that scene (check their latest album for aural evidence), but the fans showing up to the gig are the same ones you see at Taking Back Sunday shows, at Dashboard Confessional shows, and at Jimmy Eat World shows. Enmore Road was packed with a sea of kids with lopsided haircuts, handmade shirts with Brand New (and, unsurprisingly, Taking Back Sunday - "If I'm just bad news, then you're a liar") lyrics and a distinct look of not being old enough to drink (though I'm pretty sure you need to be 18+ to get into the Enmore). It's that special type of fan you only get at an emo show, and Brand New's show, by the very presence of these kids, was an emo show. If Jeff Weiss ever gets sick of profiling hipster fashion, he could certainly find a rich vein of material amongst emo kids.
Brand New doesn't approach its fanbase with hostility, in fact, at the show Lacey said (mumbled) how happy he was to be doing a non-festival show, one where he wasn't on the same bill as Rage Against the Machine and Bjork (and, assumedly, playing to people who had come to see those acts). But the band has steadily outgrown its origins. Its debut album, Your Favorite Weapon was direct and catchy punk-pop, with some smart hooks delivered by a singer with a smart mouth. It fit very comfortably into the contemporary emo spectrum, and if Fall Out Boy had launched emo into the mainstream consciousness a few years earlier, it may have been a hit. But the follow-up, 2003's Deja Entendu, suggested the band had a bit more ambition, and, much as I like those early tunes, a bit more talent. The lyrics had more Saddle Creek style precocity — the record shares more than a few similarities with Cursive's The Ugly Organ — than adolescent cheek, and the arrangments, though heavily indebted to the Pixies' loud-soft dynamic, were creative and enjoyable.
Then the band disappeared for three years, before re-emerging with a new, stunning record called The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me. Where Lacey was previously sardonic and witty, he was now introspective and conflicted. The band relied on textures rather than riffs, and the songs, along with the paranoia and uncertainty Lacey gave them, engulfed the listener. It was a remarkable achievement, and if these guys weren't firmly entrenched in the emo ghetto, they might have attracted a bit of attention from the music world. This is decidely not the sort of music you would expect 15 year old kids with tight jeans and crooked haircuts to have much interest in (excuse me for indulging in generalities), but the thing about being in the emo ghetto is that the fans you do have will follow you anywhere. If Neil Young had been an emo kid, Trans would have been idolized by his fan base just as much as Tonight's the Night had been. Not that The Devil and God... is Brand New's Trans. But by all rights, Brand New's current fans should have no interest in the band, and the band should be able to claim a vast number of fans among those who currently have no interest in it.
I think Brand New knows this. The support act for the night was actually Jesse Lacey; he played a short acoustic set before the actual show. It wasn't riveting; the already sparse "Play Crack the Sky," lost a lot of momentum outside the studio, and his cover of Neutral Milk Hotel's "Oh Comely" was executed competently, but was by no means a stand out. But one song, the final track on Your Favorite Weapon was absolutely devestating, and it said a lot about the band and its fans.
The song was "Soco Amaretto Lime," a solo acoustic track about being young and indestructible, written by people who were almost young enough to feel that way. "Passed out on the overpass, Sunday best and broken glass," Lacey sung as the crowd cheered in recognition. And half way through the verse, he was interrupted by a great swell rising from the mass of fans in front of him. Lacey's lone, cracking voice faded away, and, unprompted, the entire theater chanted, "Everybody wake up, it's time to get down." They were the correct lyrics, of course, but the spontaneity was stunning, the way this room full of kids, completely unprompted, supplied the refrain.
And the thing about that refrain is that it's such an anthemic, rousing one that it could be the basis for an entire song, repeated ad nauseum over the run time. But it never returns; it's just a particularly chorus-like section of the track. Instead the central refrain is one that builds up from the backing vocals until it gets loud enough and insistent enough to dominate the whole track: "You're just jealous cause we're young and in love."
It's such a great hook, the sort of thing that Brand New excels at, though other bands, particularly emo bands, try their hand at too. It's a swaggering, us-against-the-world celebration of youth, one that's been a part of rock music since its inception, but has been subsumed by the by turns passive-aggressive and merely passive Nickelbacks and Coldplays of the rock world. For so many kids, this sort of thing is the "Born to Run" of today.
Lacey is older than he was when he wrote that song, though, and he's in a different artistic place. It was clever when he changed the lyric to "I'm just trouble cause you're young and in love," converting his narrative from "us-against-the-world" to a "homme-fatale," "you stay away from me you hear" (as Johnny Cash put it) warning. But the song changed when he changed that lyric, again, to "I'm just jealous cause you're young and in love." Now Lacey was at a remove from his audience, now he was the one who couldn't understand their youthful passion, where before he was their co-conspiritator. When he wrote that song, he included the lines, "I'm gonna stay eighteen forever/so we can stay like this forever," but he didn't stay like that forever. He grew up, and now he's got a roomful of fans who are just like he once was but no longer is. And they just keep cheering him anyway.
At the end of his solo set, he promised that he'd return shortly with the rest of the band. When the full band did arrive, complete with two drummers (great, huh?), the concentrated heavily on their two recent albums. "Jude Law and a Semester Abroad" was nowhere to be seen, and if they had made room for it in the setlist, it would have been a shockingly abrupt and entirely out of place mood change. But still, the crowd cheered wildly for the one immediate thrill on The Devil and God..., the charging, stadium-sized "The Archer's Bows Are Broken" and singing along to every single word of the first verse of "Okay, I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don't." I haven't seen that sort of thing outside Dashboard Confessional shows. The Enmore played host to the Arcade Fire the previous two nights, and Brand New's music should have attracted the same audience that attended those shows. Those guys haven't realized they should be paying attention, but the kind of people who wax rhapsodically about the influence Brand New has had on their lives at SongMeanings are more than happy to take their place, even if their favorite band is doing something much more weird and complex than Your Favorite Weapon's "Seventy Times Seven."
Brand New's recent material has dealt with uncertainty about death and paranoia about morality and faith; it's the sort of thing that if you took as an unvarnished record of the artist's mindstate you'd rush Jesse Lacey straight on to a suicide watch. So, whether the band means it or not, whether Lacey's obscurantism is genuine or in service of the band's image, they still know that their job is to put on a show. The last song of the main set, "You Won't Know," fretted about the inaccessability of those who have passed on, and after a tsunami of guitar squall, worries that the dead can't report on their fate in the afterlife back to their living relatives. It's a haunting meditation on loneliness as it relates to Lacey's own mortality, and appropriately, as its guitar attack faded away, the band melted into the shadows, leaving the solitary Lacey on stage to whisper about abandonment. No matter how terrifying unhinged these songs sound, the band isn't so unhinged that they can't stage clever theater in its show.
It recognizes this, of course, and pays heed to it lyrically. In Deja Entendu's "I Will Play My Game Beneath the Spin Light," Lacey sang, self-effacingly, "Please know we do this cause we care, not for the thrill," and observed "My secrets for a buck/Watch me as I cut myself wide open on this stage/Yes, I am paid to spill my guts." He might have stopped admitting that he's a showman and he may have become (even) better at playing the part of one, but he's still a showman, and a damn good one, too.
The encore was the culmination of what the show had been threatening to become the entire night; a guitar showcase. Brand New has really become a guitarist's band, though definitely a frenetic post-punk guitarist's band, rather than a virtuosic classic rock guitarist's band. Jesse Lacey and Vincent Accardi went absolutely nuts on stage, not in the preening way that Taking Back Sunday's Adam Lazzara does, but with disturbing, unrestrained abandon. It looked like Nirvana in videos of their performances, and they were just as intense. Lacey's scream isn't a hardcore roar, it's an anguished keen, but somehow it can harmonize perfectly with a hall full of people. It made him sound at once isolated from and intrinsically connected to his fans. And that's what was so bizarre about the show, and about Brand New's entire career: the more this band shrinks upon itself, the more eagerly its fans march into the void with it.
CORRECTION: After reviewing the YouTube video of Lacey playing "Soco Amaretto Lime" in Sydney, it seems he did not actually sing "I'm just trouble cause you're young and in love." He did indeed sing "I'm just jealous cause you're young and in love," though, and that was the main point.