The Failure of (Almost) All Pop

FM Knives
Tropicana, Anaheim
Saturday, Dec. 14

The Indigents couldn't play because someone was in jail; the Distraction couldn't play because of a family emergency; and CTW couldn't play because they didn't actually even show up. So that left the FM Knives gritting their teeth, waiting for the DJ to lug his crates offstage, and getting ready to play for—well, pretty much just us. And the drummer's parents. But it's hard to tell who loved them more: the next time these guys come down, meet them at the freeway exit with the vino and the vestal virgins. They started out as an Undertones cover band, the singer told us—we weren't surprised for a second—but then they accidentally wrote so many stubbornly perfect, poppy punk songs that they were reluctantly forced to become a real band, instead of just some tipsy thirtysomethings crooning out "Emergency Cases" at a bar. You can still pick out their roots pretty easily (singer Jason has yet to drop the drink-in-one-fist-mic-in-the-other habit), but their songs are put together with an almost medieval-like craftsmanship. They've got the kind of vein-popping attention to detail that—if you're hacking out something with a chisel instead of a beat-up guitar—will get you a Venus De Milo and enough left over for a really nice ashtray or pencil holder. Anyway: the Tropicana lights are set up to shoot right into your eyes if you're standing up front. That, plus the FM Knives' tried-and-true 4/4 beat is brainwashing better than the Manchurian Candidate, wrapping six simple syllables around your corpus callosum: it took twenty-some years and four guys from Sacramento, but FM Knives are straight-facedly (though they'll shuffle and be embarrassed if you dare mention it) the American Buzzcocks. And it's not just the songs, which boast the kind of brassy musicianship only terminal record geeks can muster—it's the ennui. "The Man From OSI" and "Down On the Street" and "Automatic" are matter-of-factly desperate snapshots of midlife alienation—and better yet, you can dance to it!

Crosstown Rival/Split 7/Staring Back
Chain Reaction
Sunday, Dec. 15

When Homeland Security gets set up, the hearings and show trials won't be far behind—fine with us, as long as we get to chair an Un-American Committee of our own for these bands with their logo t-shirts and the ballcaps and the short hair, and all the bands who sound like them, and all the kids paying big bucks down at Guitar Center because they're so sheltered and confused they want to start yet another band that sounds exactly the same. This is practically OC's official soundtrack, and while the Chinese may well have had their own reasons for targeting nukes into SoCal a few years back, this cargo-cult of focus-grouped teenage cheese is nonetheless as valid a justification as any to push the fucking button until it short-circuits. NOFX, Sunny Day Real Estate, Blink-182 and whoever else managed to force their CDs into the malls should be held culpable for Kissinger-esque crimes against humanity, for unleashing an invincibly potent viral strain of guitar cliché that's spread like human papiloma virus through a suburban high school locker room. This is music as a tubful of trailer-park meth: brewed up with a little cheap energy, a lot of technical know-how, and an overriding desire to make a lot of money poisoning kids who don't know any better. It's fucking disgusting to see bands whoring out their t-shirts and their dot-coms between songs—is there anybody left that doesn'thave a special message from their sponsors? The lip-service in the songs themselves can't stand on its own; at best, there's a sort of half-life waiting in the CD collections of people who don't know or don't care about music, an overdriven extreme-sports counterpart to the culture that lives in the cutout bins at Target. It's Paxil-pop—music with which to disarm natural nerve reactions—and for all the movement on stage, it's devastatingly soporific. Jumping around on stage, fist-pumping and head-bobbing does not translate to "energy," which is something your inner management scumbag no doubt urges you to project. It makes you look like male strippers: flaccid, fake and only as enthusiastic as the paycheck will carry. Listen: taste is subjective only up to a point—that's what they make you learn in music-critic school, shortly before they issue you the assault rifle. And objectively, your bands should not exist. It hurts to see potential just sleeting off that stage as you whine about this mic being too low and that monitor being too high. You're chain stores, you're cartoons, you're warm meat pawing up instruments that could be better used by impoverished kids in Brasilia or something—if only to kill things to eat.

 
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