I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
…Unless I decide to skip around the alphabet. In fact, I believe I’ll skip around for all of March…
(Sub Pop, 2009)
I guess something good can come from Allentown, Pennsylvania, Pissed Jeans’ hometown and mine as well. Or, maybe “good” is a relative term here, as there’s nothing really good reflected in the songs on King of Jeans, the band’s sophomore Sub Pop album, even though the record clearly rocks and rocks well. So maybe we split that up – there’s quite a bit of quality good, but very little moral good. In fact, there’s a whole lot of ugly. And mean. And lazy. A whole lot of good-ol’ American crapulance. Fortunately for Pissed Jeans, you can glimpse a wink and the sparkle of a briefly-flashed smile from the gutter, because although the punk attitude on display is a grisly sort, it’s still tongue in cheek – you just have to stoop down and get really close to the alcohol- and sweat-soaked dude passed out in front of you to get the joke, and even then braving that kind of proximity isn’t for everyone. But if you’re game, then you can play going-nowhere white-trash dress-up along with the band.
Let’s stay with that for a minute, and consider that even the band’s name brings to mind the awful results of drinking too much (to forget? to fight?). It’s self-deprecation to the extreme, personal embarrassment on full display. Imagine waking up from a bender, maybe in the living room surrounded by a few other passed-out people, and realizing that you’ve wet yourself. That’s awful, right? Well, in that situation, Pissed Jeans want you to think that they would gingerly glance around the room, hazily take in their surroundings, fleetingly remember pieces of the abhorrent night before, look down at their damp crotch, sniff and grimace and say “Screw it – I gotta get to work.” Ick, yuck, bluh. And yet there’s a humor in that, isn’t there, the gross, physical kind where grownups perform stupid or despicable acts, and we can see their comeuppance approaching from a mile away? It makes you feel better than someone else, and you can laugh at that. Right? Or do you feel as conflicted as I do, mixing some of your laughter with pity? It’s the tightrope Pissed Jeans walk.
So logically the touchstones are The Jesus Lizard and The Birthday Party, and it’s especially helpful that vocalist Matt Korvette’s delivery mirrors David Yow’s or Nick Cave’s. (Korvette’s not his real last name either – that would be Kosloff, but isn’t “Korvette” way cooler?) That is, he’s usually growling or sneering or spitting or wailing with the microphone in his mouth, semi-comprehensibly, while his bandmates shred punk rock’s flesh from its bone until it’s a raw and throbbing scuzzy noise. Yow and Cave used to stalk the stage or careen around it, their unpredictability promising unseen violence, usually through a haze of beer (Yow) or drugs (Cave). While I don’t know much about Korvette, he sure plays the part like a champ, jiggling the verses of “Half Idiot” like a loose grenade pin before turning the titular insult on himself in the chorus. And he’s always coming up short – for others, for himself – in a half-assed, way, as in the blisteringly thudding “False Jesii Part 2” wherein he rattles off several things he could do that evening, and ends each line with “but I don’t bother” – and the chorus is simply the repetition of “No to everything.”
So this mix of lazy and volatile is in fact pretty funny – yes, I’ve decided it – and it manifests itself in relationships all throughout King of Jeans. The uncomfortably titled hope-smashing “Dream Smotherer” ends in the repetition of “I will help you make ends meet if you will help me get some sleep” – talk about not caring for the extra mile. This utter co-dependent relationship is built on mere survival, and anything beyond that is a foggy fantasy. In fact, the cover – on which is depicted a section of a bare arm – doesn’t lend itself to speculation until you see the back of it, whereon the arm continues, the hand holding a candy bar, feeding it to a well-dressed, pretty girl. Yeah, it’s somewhat suggestive, but this depiction of a relationship where one person literally feeds the other nutritionless garbage for sustenance offers a glimpse down a dark road of unhealthy behavior. Even other song titles revel in this sort of selfishness or sado-masochism: “Pleasure Race,” “Human Upskirt,” “Goodbye (Hair)” – Pissed Jeans really does a great job documenting the crud you find throughout American lives. “Spent” is an exhausting crawl through Korvette’s shitty day, and the euphemism of being sexually tapped out is not lost on the listener, being just another shrugged-off detail. “R-Rated Movie” happily pokes our dumbass fascination with celebrity, and “Dominate Yourself” is a last resort in case someone can’t do it for you.
All this to say – gosh this band can whip you into a frenzy. Let that hedonistic spirit flow over you. Even though there’s an inherent meanness – like Korvette might, without a second thought, make fun of the fat girl in class, or hook up with your girlfriend, or something equally heinous – it’s only because he hates himself … or at least his characterizations do. We can vicariously live out the self-destructive behavior in the band’s raucous attitude, and celebrate the ugliness and gruesome base pleasures too. Even if we don’t want to stay too long. In the end, what on the surface sounds like cynical, apathetic music for dickheads ends up skewering the very subset of the population the songs describe. Maybe Pissed Jeans are just jerks – or maybe they’re the single greatest mirror we have.
RIYL: The Jesus Lizard, The Birthday Party, Nirvana