Appleton, Wisconsin band Tenement are unapologetically anachronistic. In interviews, singer/guitarist Amos Pitsch admits that he doesn’t have Internet access, and is more likely to listen to music on cassette than MP3. The cover art of their album recalls the collages that Winston Smith used to make for the Dead Kennedys, right down to the ironic use of images of happy 1950s families. The music is vintage 1991: chunky guitars, punk distortion hiding 70s-influenced pop, and ironic, sarcastic lyrics.
The album opens with a squeal of feedback before the sloppy, distorted chords of “Stupid Werld” begin. The drummer pounds his set like Dave Grohl, the bass emits a sinister rumble, and Pitsch’s strained vocals are somewhere between singing and yelling. Beneath all of the noise lie strong hooks and strong songwriting. Like Superchunk, Tenement write pop songs disguised as punk songs.
The drunken swagger of the vocals disguise an unexpected sensitivity in the lyrics. A lot of the songs deal with love in an oblique way. On “Dreaming Out Loud,” Pitsch sings “I’m retracing all my steps/ Falling in love again/ Break my knuckles open/Glue them back in place.” There are also several references to broken homes, like “Father pissing on the Christmas tree,” in “Spitting in the Wind.” There’s a more damning line in “Earwig,” where Pitsch sings “Two parents who didn’t care/ And a life they could never live/ Even if they would have dared/ ’Cause nothing ever works out.”
Listening to this album gave me the same feeling I got watching Superchunk play last year: rather than dated, the songs seemed timeless, and proved that the decades-old formula still had value and relevance. Alt-rock’s good name was besmirched by the legions of half-assed copycat bands that followed in Nirvana’s wake. Bad rock with distorted guitars is still bad rock, and there were hundreds of forgettable albums released by labels hoping to cash in on the success of Nevermind. Napalm Dream points to an alternate universe, where bands keep true to sound and ethos of bands like Husker Dü and the Replacements, rather than going the way of Nickelback. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it does prove that punk pop has legs.