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If punk bands were judged solely on the number of musical ideas per minute, the Blood Brothers would be near the top of any critical roundup. The Seattle quintet’s songs simmer and explode, then fall back to earth and reconstitute themselves around dark grooves, hectic piano riffs, or oddball vocal arrangements. No emotion lasts longer than a few seconds, and no melody is safe from the band’s seemingly panic-fueled unpredictability.
It’s visceral and it’s complicated, but somehow the process has always yielded results that sound more cartoonish than dangerous or harrowing. Despite all the shrieking, shape-shifting, and genre-humping, the Blood Brothers often fail to sound like a threat to anything. Nix the volume level and the hardcore-style dynamics, and the band might be labeled prog. As things stand now, though, it’s basically a colossal gimmick—a sonic freak show.
That’s not necessarily a fatal flaw, because there’s plenty of interesting stuff in there with all that catharsis and chaos. On last year’s Burn, Piano Island, Burn, the Brothers turned themselves over to MTV-approved producer Ross Robinson, and the results were a lesson in modern-rock symbiosis: The band got comfortable with its suddenly accelerated musical growth, and Robinson got to move Limp Bizkit a littler further down his résumé. The disc sounded huge and unstoppable. Not mean or rage-fueled, but potent and controlled, it was the musical equivalent of a monstrosity who can pull a semi with his teeth.
On the new Crimes, however, the group goes almost completely mental, making the disc a constant tug-of-war between the utterly ridiculous and the potentially cool. The ridiculous parts are obvious: They usually come when co-frontman Johnny Whitney erupts into his nasal, girlish caterwaul, instantly deep-sixing any chance for the songs to trade on the merits of guitarist Cody Votolato, bassist Morgan Henderson, and drummer Mark Gajadhar. It’s pointless to decipher Whitney’s singing—just check the song title and infer something angsty.
The band manages to subdue him briefly on “Love Rhymes With Hideous Car Wreck,” turning over the verses to the other vocalist, Jordan Billie, who, when he’s not howling at the top of his lungs, sounds uncannily like Joe Strummer. But the singsongy “Love, love, love” bridge and much of the chorus are Whitney’s to spoil, and he does so in his typically bitchy-sounding fashion. Punk and metal are full of examples of upper-register vocalists successfully finding a midrange foil: Fugazi’s Guy and Ian, Sonic Youth’s Kim and Thurston, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and, well, Robert Plant. The secret ingredient for those three acts is mystique. The Blood Brothers self-sabotage any chance to build some of their own.
Rather, Whitney’s theatricality on Crimes seems to serve only one purpose: contrast, often where none is really necessary. Sure, Gajadhar could afford to be a little more supple and a little less ham-fisted, and Henderson fades almost into nonexistence at times, but Votolato is a font of ideas: Unlike your average screamo band’s metalhead ax-wielder, he sounds beholden to punk rock first, all other forms of noise second. His chops on “Trash Flavored Trash” are essentially machine-mangled surf-rock; “Rats and Rats and Rats for Candy” has some pop-flavored passages, but most of its riffs are pure MacKaye/ Picciotto; and the manic energy of “Beautiful Horses” is one part Pixies, one part straightedge anthem. He’s equally evocative on many of the other tracks.
Maybe the production of indie stalwart John Goodmanson (Sleater-Kinney, Blonde Redhead) is the reason Votolato is the hero here. Goodmanson handles Crime’s overinflated drama—pianos and keyboards figure much more heavily this time ’round—professionally, and even dispassionately, perhaps because it would have been pointless to inject the songs with any mystery. But the guitars do get an extra touch of love. They sound capable of rocketing straight onto a disc by another band—one that knows how to control its excess energy instead of letting it boil over uselessly.
At times Devin Ocampo sounds as if he could do a pretty good Bono impersonation—and that’s not a criticism. The guy has genuine rock-star pipes, at least when compared with most of the idiosyncratic frontmen who have come through the Dischord ranks in the past 20-odd years. It helps that the five songs on the eponymous debut EP by Ocampo’s new band, Medications, are taut, focused, and relatively conventional—if not structurally, at least sonically. It’s math rock with an FM-radio gene nestled somewhere deep in its chromosomes.
The lineup here has Ocampo reprising his guitarist-vocalist role from the defunct D.C. trio Faraquet, which simply ran out of ideas, according to the booklet that came with the recent Dischord box set. Chad Molter, the drummer from that band (and a Washington City Paper employee), now handles the bass, and skilled newcomer Andrew Becker is the drummer. Whereas Faraquet was inclined toward detours into abstract melodies, jazzlike breakdowns, and compositional blind alleys, Medications rarely goes anywhere but straight ahead. Even the splashy drumming in the middle section of “Exercise Your Futility” is building toward a Big Crescendo, albeit an arty one. If it wouldn’t make it onto a U2 record, it wouldn’t sound out of place on something by, say, Ted Leo, a Celtic rocker who hasn’t yet strayed too far from his punk roots.
The two songs that bookend the disc, “Safe and Sorry” and “The Perfect Target,” are downright anthemic at times, and the burner “Domestic Animals” barrels ahead at full speed. Sure, they have left-turn rhythms and muso-inclined passages, but they always come back to a kickass guitar part (think Burning Airlines at its mightiest) or a sweeping vocal melody (think Superchunk at its peak), delivered with arena-sized passion by Ocampo. He doesn’t sound self-absorbed or convinced of his own excellence; he sounds in full possession of the songs.
What Ocampo is singing, however, is often anybody’s guess. When he enunciates and separates his words, the lyrics can build stark imagery from a few fragments: “Forget crawling the distance/I slowly groan/Tired of inspiration/Trying to catch my breath all alone/Traumatic diseases/Froze in my lungs,” for instance, is the initial sequence for “Exercise Your Futility.” After that, though, little verbiage arrives clearly. On the more intense songs, Ocampo tends either to stretch out his vowels or clip them, as if to make way for another riff. The lyrics suffer, though the songs’ overall impact doesn’t.
That’s because the entire package is engaging: Medications’ mission, it seems, is to be instantly likable in a way that Faraquet wasn’t. Instead of forcing a decision over the relative merits of this musical quirk or the other, Medications simply puts a little bit of rock on the line. Sometimes it’s that easy: There’s no shame in taking small musical risks and playing them damn well.CP