Punk is Dad
Much of the wonderfulness of popular music stems from the relative youth of its bedrock genres. Hip-hop, electronica, shoegaze, heavy metal and many others are relatively new inventions, still rich with unexplored veins and ripe with possibility. Many were given rise by very specific technologies and very specific social conditions. Punk rock is one of these relative neophytes, born out of idealistic social alienation and loud, youthful rebellion in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
However, much like Robin Williams’ Jack (both the character and the film), punk aged fast – very fast. Eulogies “Salad Days” and “Chickenshit Conformist” were penned by former flag-bearers in ’83 and ’86 respectively. Those mohawked and patch-jacketed young eschewers are young no longer, and punk is now more of a nebulous musical genre than a social phenomenon. Still, straight-faced punk records still emerge every so often, begging the question – can unalloyed, traditional punk still claim any musical or cultural relevance in 2015?
Poison Idea are almost as old as punk itself. Formed in 1980 in Portland, Oregon, the band has undergone multiple hiatii and extensive lineup changes, and in the decades since, with only vocalist Jerry A. representing the founding group. Poison Idea are known, among other things, for viciously insulting Ian Mackaye (careful Googling that one), and for showing that even punks of a more ample constitution can vent their frustrations and wreak havoc onstage. With Confuse & Conquer, the band’s first full-length album since 2006’s Latest Will and Testament (a sort of final farewell for longtime guitarist Tom “Pig Champion” Roberts, who died that year), Poison Idea have crafted a collection of anthemic punk songs that showcase Jerry A.’s gruff vocals and acerbic lyrics, but fail to “rise above” a sense of being frozen in time.
Firstly, the mix and musicianship on Confuse & Conquer are immaculate – almost too good for a punk record. Everything is delivered on time and presented in perfect balance. This is a double-edged sword. The recordings lack the rawness and urgency of the style, yet their precision allows them to act as elegant vessels for the musical ideas Poison Idea wish to share.
These ideas range a bit, both lyrically and musically. “Bog” seems to be an analogy about sinking into a bog. “I Never Heard of You” is a bellicose rumination on fame and ego. “Trip Wire” is about getting fed up and leaving town. Jerry A. illuminates these scenes with a number of vocal approaches, the primary being a gruff shout teetering between youthful agitation and middle-aged weariness. Notable variations include the mumble-mouthed, raving torrent of “Cold Black Afternoon” and the sonorous Johnny Cash-isms of “Dead Cowboy.”
Musically, Poison Idea stretch beyond simple hardcore punk. However, there won’t be anything here that you haven’t heard before. There is fast punk, slow punk, hardcore punk, pop punk, country-western rock, boogie-woogie rock, alternative rock and even a bit of doomy, Butthole Surfers-esque psychedelia at the end. Oddly enough, “Me & JD” sounds something like Chemistry of Common Life-era Fucked Up, but this is an isolated incident. Really, given the band’s long history and rotating cast, it’s hard to say just where Poison Idea are getting their inspiration, but in the end it matters little. The songs are here, and Jerry A.’s lyrics and vocals animate them, sketching gritty situational mini-dramas and minting distinctive lines and choruses.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that genre-devout albums like these are commiserations of stubbornness – private messages between artists and fans both clinging like barnacles to the same half-sunk or else port-less ships. It is painful to lump punk rock in with “classic rock,” hair metal, progressive rock (whose very excess punk set out to destroy!) and other such fuddy-duddy, bowling alley jukebox fare, but sometimes the truth hurts. It can happen to any genre – 90s alternative rock is already there, first-wave electronica and trip-hop are on their way, and who knows what ultra-cool genres of today may follow as their fanbases age. Time makes fools of us all. So while it may be easy to judge an earnest 2015 punk rock album like Confuse & Conquer as being painfully “out of step” with the times, it’s much nobler to realize that Jerry A. and the rest of Poison Idea have taken their latest reincarnation seriously, and released an album full of tight performances and substantial lyrics. Sometimes an idea that was great decades ago is still pretty good, no matter how the times have changed.