When Screeching Weasel returned just a few months ago with First World Manifesto, their first album in over a decade, long time fans who didn't follow the behind the scenes drama might have been confused why John Jughead was not involved. He has been the only constant member besides frontman Ben Weasel for the band's entire career. His involvement in a Ben Weasel-related project is practically the only thing separating a Screeching Weasel release from a Riverdales or Ben Weasel solo one. I'm certainly not saying that his guitar playing was indispensable to the band's sound (he only ever played rhythm guitar), but it's hard not to think of the bands you love as being friends, and that perceived friendship is part of what draws us back to those bands, especially ones that play (generally) light-hearted, fun music like SW always has.

It turns out that there was a definite reason why Screeching Weasel had not released any new music for so long, while the Riverdales and Ben Weasel by himself managed to keep recording. It seems that Weasel and Jughead were involved in a lengthy legal battle regarding the usage of the band's name. The summary of which is that Weasel wanted to continue recording with the band without the involvement of Jughead. Apparently Jughead had some legal claim to at least a part of the band's nomiker. He would eventually lose this battle, and Screeching Weasel would reunite for the first time without the guitar playing of John Jughead.

The one saving grace for the lineup of Screeching Weasel that appeared on First World Manifesto was the return of lead guitarist Dan Sullivan (A.K.A. Dan Vapid). Sullivan had played with the band during what most people consider their "classic" period, performing on My Brain Hurts, Wiggle, Anthem For A New Tomorrow, How To Make Enemies and Irritate People and Bark Like A Dog. He had also played in every incarnation of the Riverdales, contributing not only guitar, but also vocals on some of the band's best songs. His return to the Screeching Weasel fold (in addition to guest vocals by "Dr." Frank and Joe King of the Mr. T Experience and The Queers, respectively) was enough to make First World Manifesto an enjoyable album for long time fans of the band, and the Lookout! Records pop punk scene of the early '90's in general. Add to this plans by Fat Wreck Chords to reissue the entire Screeching Weasel and Riverdales catalogs (which fell out of print yet again), a full national tour, and tons of online media hype, and momentum seemed to be going in the right direction for Ben Weasel and company.

That is, until the much publicized incident at SXSW.

The story goes that fans were throwing ice at the band, and as Ben Weasel heckled the crowd about it (note: pissing off his audience is nothing new for Weasel, he even penned a song called "You're The Enemy" to play when he felt that audiences weren't acting the way he saw fit), he attacked a female member of the audience who had the misfortune of jumping on stage at the time his anger reached a boiling point.

This led to all the members of the band quitting, issuing an apology on their behalf to the fans, and Fat Wreck Chords backing out of their plans to offer the reissues. Around the same time, Weasel also released an apology, and it seemed that it was all over for Screeching Weasel.

Well, apparently, Ben didn't want all his legal battles with John Jughead and the process of rebuilding interest in the band to be for nothing, because just a few short months later, he recruited a completely new line up for the band, and they headed quickly into the studio to record a new E.P., Carnival of Schadenfreude which was released exclusively on vinyl by Recess Records. Much like First World Manifesto was bookended by two songs decrying the punk scene and those that Ben Weasel didn't find fit into his view of it, Carnival of Schadenfreude starts and ends with songs about the "incident", and Ben Weasel's half of the story. Or at least, how he's telling it now. He paints himself as a victim of a petty punk scene that wanted nothing more than to see one of its long time heroes fail, his band members as fair weather friends that turned on him, and his label nothing more than a bunch of elitists who left him when the cards were down.

Unfortunately, Weasel forgets that the internet has documented everything that happened regarding the event, so his tirades are going to fall largely on deaf ears, and he comes off looking like the petty one.

The rest of the E.P. plays like typical Screeching Weasel fare (the backing band sounds great, by the way, if not a bit like the world's best Screeching Weasel cover band), proving, if nothing else, that Ben can still pen a catchy, fun punk tune or two (although the song about how rich he and his wife are and how all his old punk friends are losers is a bit confusing to say the least), and hopefully as he moves forward with Screeching Weasel version 5.0 (which he undoubtedly will, for better or worse), he focuses more on having fun, and less on his curmudgeonly gripes.

Carnival of Schadenreude - 6 out of 10

This is the title track from Carnival of Schadenfreude, in all it's whiny, self-important glory.
joshthevegan: (Roar)

We are deep in the heart of summer here in the northern hemisphere, and although I'm a fan of brainy pop punk all year 'round, the warm weather basically demands a steady stream of upbeat, fun songs about love and life's other disasters.

This particular summer, I have found myself turning to some of the classic releases from the hey-day of Lookout! Records. This is the label that brought Green Day and Operation Ivy (which would eventually morph into Rancid) to the world initially, as well as some other smaller act like The Queers, Screeching Weasel (who have a newish album out) and The Mr. T Experience.

The Mr. T Experience (or MTX for short) are considered to be the first punk band in the "Bay Area" punk scene of Southern California's East Bay. They built their following around gigs at the 924 Gilman Street punk club, where such punk heavyweights as NoFX and Bad Religion also performed back in the 1980's.

MTX's first few albums are a blend of pop punk that is heavily influenced by The Ramones, via Descendents and 1960's-style surf rock. While these first releases are rather enjoyable, it wasn't until their sixth album, and after all of the original members (aside from frontman "Dr." Frank Porter) had quit the band, that MTX started releasing their most memorable and enduring works.

Their first full-length during this peak era is Love is Dead, and it also happens to be the first album they offered after their former label-mates Green Day exploded into the mainstream with Dookie. Love is Dead is a masterpiece of peppy sunshine pop, which pairs perfectly with Dr. Frank's offbeat lyrics about love. Whether it is unrequited love ("I'm Like Yeah, But She's All No"), or love in the blossoming stages ("I Just Wanna Do It With You" which isn't nearly as dirty as it sounds), or simply love of playing music just for the fun of it, even though some of your peers are cashing in ("Dumb Little Band"), the full spectrum of love's possibilities are explored, and although love might be "dead", it sure is fun.

Love Is Dead - 8 out of 10

Punk bands were just starting to delve fully into the world of the music video in the mid '90's, and MTX put together a pretty excellent one for one of the songs from this album, "Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba":

In case you missed the memo: Ben Weasel loves to hate the punk rock scene. As far back as Screeching Weasel's classic 2nd album BoogadaBoogadaBoogada, he has been penning songs full of vitriol towards his contemporaries ("Nicaragua", "Punk Rock Explained", "Hey Asshole"). If that weren't enough, the voluminous liner notes that have accompanied several of their albums have made it clear that he doesn't care for the very genre that gives him his voice to complain about it.

It isn't even just fellow performers, either. The fact that his self-proclaimed magnum opus Emo was generally dismissed by fans and critics alike bothered him to no end. Sluggish sales of (his alter-ego band) Riverdales' Storm the Streets irked him to the point of mentioning in one of those infamous liner notes. It seems that things just never seem to go his way.

This acidic bitterness actually created much of the appeal to Weasel's catchy anthems for many years. As the band approaches its 25th year, however, the anger seems to have gotten personal, and with that slight change, the fun just evaporates from the picture.

First World Manifesto is the first Screeching Weasel album in 11 years, but that doesn't mean that Ben Weasel has been inactive since the beginning of the millenium. Riverdales have released several increasingly excellent albums, and he even released two solo albums (the second of which was simply fantastic). So, while this might be a grand return to the casual fan, those that follow closely know that this is simply another Ben Weasel album. Particularly since (the only other constant member of Screeching Weasel since its inception) John Jughead is not present, though Danny Vapid has made his return to bass duties. (This "return" is not so surprising, since Vapid has been performing with Weasel in Riverdales over the last decade.)

The album is above-average pop punk, and is pretty entertaining for the most part. Former record label-mates Dr. Frank and Joe King (of The Mr. T Experience and The Queers, respectively) show up for guest vocals, which is a nice bonus. Unfortunately, the catchy, goofy, simple punk tunes that encompass the majority of the album are overshadowed in some ways by the few tracks that angrily snark punk rock scenesters (a very edgy group to mock, to be sure). The fact that specific festivals and bands are mentioned by name (including Fat Mike, the owner of the very label that is distributing this album) takes the timelessness out of the songs, and renders them hardly more interesting than a blog posting. Where a song like "Fathead" (from My Brain Hurts) is still fun today, since the subject is left anonymous, "Follow Your Leaders" falls flat because of the obvious Bouncing Souls reference.

First World Manifesto won't go down in history as one of the great Screeching Weasel releases, but it's adequate. Personally, though, it only makes me want to listen to the last two Riverdales albums, and Ben Weasel's These Ones Are Bitter, since they all pointed towards a more mature songwriting craft that First World lacks.

First World Manifesto - 6 out of 10

Edited To Add: It seems that Ben "Weasel" Foster's ignorant attitude has taken the form of action on stage, and as such the entire band has quit around him. I don't blame them, as what I've heard happened on stage is inexcusable and disgusting.

In the winter of 1999, Ben Weasel started putting together what was to be Screeching Weasel's first full-length album for their own Panic Button records.  It was a conscious deviation from everything the band had become known for over the last decade.  Their infectious blend of Ramones-inspired pop punk that was defined on My Brain Hurts, and perfected through albums like Anthem For A New Tomorrow and How To Make Enemies And Irritate People was distinctly absent, and in its place was a very rough, non-descript straight-forward blend of punk rock.  Weasel had gotten filled up with the punk rock scene around him, and wanted to make a statement about the pettiness and eliteness of many of the people in the scene.  

The general poor reception of some their recent albums was likely fueling these feelings, as is evidenced by the final track being named after Bark Like A Dog, an album that many fans panned because of its glossy sound.  Emo is the polar opposite of that sound; according to Weasel, all the songs were recorded in one or two takes, shortly after the rest of the band had just learned them.  Very few overdubs were used, and the vocals are shaky and often off key.  The lyrics on this album are personal, candid and dissatisfied.  

The problem is, however, that it all doesn't work in the end.  The message is very preachy and uninteresting, the melodies are practically non-existent, and the production quality seems more lazy than charming and intimate.  An album like Neil Young's Tonight's the Night works better because of its rough spots, since Young is making a statement about the loss of a friend, and is truly grieving throughout.  Emo, on the other hand, wants actively to be the opposite of what came before it, since what came before it was not selling.  

Screeching Weasel's best albums have always been the ones with a certain amount of production sheen to them; My Brain Hurts is a major achievment and it sounds glossy, Wiggle is a stumbling point and much of that is because of how it sounds.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to mature and sing about something with a bit more substance than "Joannie Loves Johnny."  But, sacrificing what does work about your craft to achieve that maturity is throwing the baby out with the bath water.  Mature lyrics mixed with quality musicianship and great production is something that Ben Weasel wouldn't discover until his most recent solo album, These Ones Are Bitter.  Perhaps Emo will go down in his legacy as a necessary stepping stone to bring him to These Ones.

September 2014



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