Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hot Topic: the soundtrack

The enemy within

I don't know if it's a national chain, in California there's these stores in the Malls all over the place called Hot Topic. It's a gothy kind of place where you can shop for your teenage rebellion after eating a Wetzel Pretzel and browsing Bath & Body Works. Interesting how times change, in my day people into goth were outsiders. When I went to a Depeche Mode concert in '88, I saw all these other people with their homemade anarchy grafittied jackets and chains that were clearly done on their own. Some one saw money in that and now you have a safer place to buy your goth stuff Hot Topic. I don't have a problem with Hot Topic or goth, I'm just an old man observing the passage of time. Kind of like how you can buy AC/DC shirts at Wal Mart when 20 years ago their music was considered "Satanic". What once was considered a threat to a nation's morals are now playing in the background while you fill your basket at the supermarket.

One band that fits that demographic really well is Green Day, a band that had a reputation as lightweight punk poppers with a downtrending career until they took an artistic risk in 2004 on the concept album American Idiot. A punk opera didn't sound promising, yet it gave the Day the opportunity to show musical virtuosity and make pointed social / political commentary while retaining their punk energy. Idiot was an inspired record that revitalized and transformed the band's career as artists with something to say.

Which brings us to five years later with the proper follow up to Idiot called 21st Century Breakdown. I've had this disc for over a month to try to digest it all, this album is like American Idiot just bigger, longer and uncut. The album is cut into three sections and tells the story of Christian and Gloria who are rebels that...I don't know, I've listened to this album for a month and I still don't know specifically what they're against here. I get that they're alienated and mad and don't want to be part of the modern world-I just don't get much more out of it.

Still, there's good news. On the musical front, Green Day is still pretty inspired. They can still tie together memorable melodies to tightly packed punked out guitars to create a frenzy on cuts like "East Jesus Nowhere" or the single "Know Your Enemy". I like it when any group pulls out those Cars synthesizer moves so "Last of the American Girls" doesn't disappoint. Sometimes I get lost in the sprawl of the different segments and their extended arrangements, but Act III packs a punch with the rampaging "Horseshoes and Handgrenades", the quick "The Static Age", the steady beat of "21 Guns" (one of the best songs on the album), a strong two part punker "American Eulogy" and ending with the Simple Minds worthy "See the Light".

They've certainly gotten more polished with the concept album idea, the sections piece together cleanly held by glowing stately keyboards in between the taut punk rhythms. Producer Butch Vig gives the group the clean punch he gained fame for on Nirvana's Nevermind. What stops this album from being great for me is that it seems a little pat. Part of what made American Idiot great was that there was an enervated feeling of risk and relevance. It took 21st Century America and held up an outsider's mirror on a society it viewed as browbeating, fear mongering and conformist. The punk fueled rhythms matched the vitriol and verve of the concept. By contrast, 21st Century Breakdown feels like a pose - a sequel that pushes to further the musical ideas yet emptier in purpose.
That's not to say 21st Century Breakdown is bad, I'll probably play this one for a few more months as it does have tremendous energy, some powerful tracks and a terrific sound. Individually the songs are all strong, though lyrically they suffer a bit from having to cow tow to the themes. Green Day can still rock with the best of them, they just had less to say this time. Or at least less that interested me. I ran this by Dixie for final approval, she says:

and a half

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