There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
It’s a punk, punk, punk, punk, punk world. The gargantuan success of a few bands has spurred a major-label signing orgy of all things DIY. Strangely, though, West Coast bands dominate punk’s new visibility; heavy-rotation acts Green Day, the Offspring, Bad Religion, and Rancid all hail from California. That’s odd, because the East Coast’s punk tradition is arguably grander, and indubitably older. What accounts for the lack of a punk breakthrough from this side of the map?
For starters, Fugazi never signed. The local quartet—synonymous with D.C.’s punk scene since its 1988 genesis—has steadfastly refused all major-label offers. That’s kept it off the airwaves and out of the mainstream’s clutches, even though the band’s outstanding second or third albums could conceivably have jump-started the punk re-explosion five years ago. But the Northeast’s failure to produce punk superstars goes deeper than Fugazi’s reticence. The efforts of East Coast acts influenced by either Fugazi or its antecedent, Minor Threat, have gone underappreciated, even with major-label support, probably because they lack the upbeat nature that’s helped West Coast punk connect with the masses.
Take Quicksand. The New York quartet’s 1993 debut, Slip, was generally assessed as “Fugazi sells out,” and rightly so. Filled with achingly earnest lyrics and the distinctively messy, open chording that Fugazi guitarists Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto should’ve patented, Quicksand’s sound only deviated from the D.C. act’s approach with its more rudimentary drumming and bass work. Yet despite this captivating, if derivative, sound, Slip came nowhere near the humongous success of, say, Dookie.
However, things have changed since Slip‘s release: With Bad Religion butting up against Led Zep on the radio, junior-high-schoolers lip-syncing to tunes about masturbation, and the Circle Jerks cutting a tune with Debbie Gibson, punk has become a promising business venture. Accordingly, Island Records is giving Quicksand another chance with Manic Compression.
Quicksand’s style on Compression is slightly more varied than on Slip. But only slightly. Guitarists Walter Schreifels and Tom Capone again employ jangling chords, to particularly agreeable affect on “Delusional” and “Backward.” And, borrowing a page from the “quiet bit/loud bit” song book, “Simpleton” effectively alternates ethereal atmospherics with tortured, yawning guitar passages.
Unfortunately, Quicksand loses its footing when it plays down the harDCore influence. Like Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, Schreifels and Capone are unable to craft consistently engaging songs around their cool riffs. “Brown Gargantuan” alternates quirky moments with the kind of ho-hum guitar thunk that Metallica has already overexploited, while the agonized affectation of “Landmine Spring” isn’t nearly as galvanizing as it strives to be. By the time the disc spins around to the wavering lines of “Supergenius,” the sense of repetition is tangible, and the album-ending, six-minute-plus drone of “It Would Be Cooler If You Did” doesn’t help matters.
Manic Compression‘s tunes are never downright stinky—in fact, they’re often catchy. But they don’t make a permanent impression. Schreifels cleverly mocks Billy Joel’s “don’t go changing” shtick on “Backward,” but his laboriously somber lyrics often fail to register, especially when he resorts to clichés (“[I’m] loading my questions like a shotgun,” he threatens). Of course, mediocrity needn’t prevent Quicksand from striking it rich—just look at the Offspring. However, Quicksand’s dour mood, common to most East Coast punk and hardcore acts, is unlikely to connect with the millions of novice fans that crave the sprightly melodies of Calipunk. If an East Coast punk act wants to go platinum, it may need to approximate the relatively perky nature of Green Day and Rancid.
New York quartet CIV has done its best toward that end. On its debut, Set Your Goals, CIV alternates irate doses of Eastern hardcore with hook-filled West Coast punk, and even incorporates a few big-band beats reminiscent of Adam and the Ants. CIV does all these things rather well, if not quite refreshingly.
CIV includes three members of semilegendary hardcore outfit Gorilla Biscuits; its fourth is Quicksand’s Schreifels, who co-produced Set Your Goals with New York producer Don Fury. (Fury also mixed Manic Compression and produced about half of that album’s tracks.) And while we’re on the subject of NYHC nepotism, Sick of It All vocalist Lou Koller also makes a guest appearance on Set Your Goals.
Despite this conspicuous Big Apple presence, a sizable chunk of Goals‘ sound comes straight outta D.C.: Guitarist Charlie’s sprinting chords and vocalist Civ’s snarling ‘tude evoke the early ’80s work of Minor Threat (in which Fugazi guitarist MacKaye served as singer). In fact, on many of Goals‘ fevered moments, CIV either recalls Minor Threat (as on the peevish “State of Grace” and “Et Tu Bruté?”) or downright resurrects MacKaye’s old band (as on “Gang Opinion,” which sounds so much like Minor Threat’s “In My Eyes” that it could be mistaken for a cover). Furthermore, Civ’s lyrics mimic the youthful MacKaye’s rants: “You try to play it cool/Why be something that you’re not?” he vents on “Trust Slips Through Your Hands.” It’s a wonder that Goals‘ only admitted cover tune, “All Twisted,” traces its lineage to Queens (and old-school NYHC act Kraut), and not down the I-95 corridor to the Beltway.
CIV isn’t the first East Coast band to appropriate the D.C. hardcore mix (consider Sick of It All and early Beastie Boys), and none of those other acts have taken the sound to superstardom. However, Set Your Goals isn’t merely a New York harDCore rip-off: The disc presents an eclectic mix that could propel CIV up the charts and into the moneyed company of the West Coast punks. “Boring Summer” and “So Far, So Good…So What” are ebullient little bursts of aggression—and emphatic percussion—that resemble the stylings of Green Day and the Offspring. The title track’s punchy romp begins the album on a giddy note (before shifting into the straight-up hardcore of “Do Something”), while the similarly strutting “Can’t Wait One Minute More,” with its skanking guitars, rolling drums, and affable disposition, was wisely selected as the album’s first video.
Set Your Goals is frivolous fun, if not unique. CIV delivers its music with sincerity and, in true hardcore spirit, even directs some bile at “all the Kingmakers and their set,” i.e., the record industry or overanalytical music critics (“Fuck ’em, they’re all wrong,” Civ comments on “Don’t Got to Prove It”). But it’s important to remember that Goals‘ “Lava” label is only a fake-indie front for Time Warner. Punk has been co-opted, and CIV’s members are misguided if they think they haven’t bought into the marketing machine. They can be as profane and antagonistic as they want, but a multinational corporation is still signing their checks. Maybe those fuddy-duddies in Fugazi have the right idea after all.