Music » Hear & Now

Pennywise / Good Riddance

Land of the Free? (Epitaph) / Symptoms of a Leveling Spirit (Fat Wreck Chords)


It's one thing to believe that pop punk, a realm of commercially viable albums and corporate-sponsored tours, can remain a bastion for the same nihilistic, up-the-system rhetoric delivered by the genre's pricklier, less-melodic ancestors. It's quite another for a band that operates within this arena to create a politically oriented concept album in a heavy-handed attempt to give this belief validity. On Land of the Free? inspired by the worldwide World Trade Organization protests (though its song "WTO" sheds no light on this conflict), Pennywise delivers fourteen cliché-ridden tracks that rail, in vague terms, against society, organized religion and "the man" in various nameless forms. The group's rage culminates in "Fuck Authority," a title worthy of leading bumper-sticker lyricists Anti-Flag. During this ready-made singalong protest anthem, singer Jim Lindberg rhythmically chants, Feel the rage of a new generation. Unfortunately, the rage of past generations was far more convincing.

Perhaps because it was overwhelmed by the prospect of grappling with such mammoth topics as "The World," "My God" and the "Enemy," Pennywise seems to have tossed together its musical backdrops as a hurried afterthought. At times, a listener can literally sing the hooks from past Pennywise tunes over these too-familiar retreads -- and given that the group's new lines include The world is a smoking gun that is loaded/and soon it's gonna blow you away, that would probably be an improvement. Byron McMackin remains one of rock's most talented drummers, but here he trudges through midpaced material or chooses a simple gallop for the fast songs instead of his usual intricate maze of fills and rolls. Randy Bradbury's basslines weave nicely between Fletcher Dragge's chugging stop-and-start riffs, just as they always have, and Lindberg's thin yelp (a toned-down version of Dexter Holland's) still sounds sincere, a refreshing change from the snotty sarcasm that most punk vocalists inject into every word. When Lindberg mutters "yeah, right" after singing "Land of the Free?" his sentiments seem heartfelt, as if he's blissfully unaware that this very device has been used countless times by other disenchanted acts.

Ironically, Pennywise has addressed big issues adequately in the past with such tunes as "Homesick" and "Nothing," but when sitting down to do a whole album of message songs, the group was apparently stricken with performance anxiety. The band aims to prove that the spirit of punk is alive, but with this far from revolutionary record, Pennywise instead offers evidence for those who argue that the genre, lyrically and musically, has little left to say.

While Pennywise tries to move further into the political realm, Good Riddance, whose debut album, For God and Country, was one of the past decade's most eloquent musical statements, continues to head in the opposite direction. Recently, the group has been devoting more of its energy to tunes that deal with personal issues, becoming perhaps the only hardcore-leaning act to use the word "love" in multiple songs. Singer Russ Rankin has filed the gruff edge off his voice, and producers Bill Stevenson, Stephen Egerton and Jason Livermore have similarly smoothed the group's once-jagged sound. Trademark touches remain -- Rankin still uses second-person admonitions (change your xenophobic point of view), straddling the border between confrontation and self-righteousness, and the group still employs double-bass drumbeats and urgent chord progressions. But its propelling anger and single-minded idealism have eroded as the band has increased the scope of its subjects and the emotional range it uses to deal with them.

After some growing pains (the forgettable EP The Phenomenon of Craving offered a less-than-promising glimpse at the band's new sound), Good Riddance has made this change work. Subtle touches, such as the morose guitar line that extinguishes "Yesterday's Headlines" and the slow-winding breakdown to "Fire Engine Red," offer respite from the formulaic void into which most of the band's contemporaries fall. The socially conscious tracks on Symptoms are of a high caliber, as are the old-school minute-long shout-and-sprints. But Good Riddance has learned that it's better to vary its approach -- even one at which it has become quite proficient -- than to hammer one technique into the ground.

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