Maturity is poison for rock artists… right?
Rock is youth and madness; the Beatles’ wild years in Hamburg, Little Richard abusing a piano bug-eyed and sweaty, hunchbacked Johnny Rotten spewing furious bile, Iggy Pop reopening last night’s wounds with a broken longneck, that idiot Jim Morrison showing off little Mister Mojo Risin’ on stage in Florida, the mudshark incident, the dove’s head incident, the peach truck incident, the Chelsea Hotel, Eddie Cochrane’s beautiful corpse in a twisted snarl of broken wreckage… all those wild-cool refutations of morality and mortality that pass into legend and make rock awesome….Right? And “maturity” means bloated concept albums, greed, mediocre solo records, participation in dubious supergroups, and a slow creative suffocation as addiction, family or boredom takes hold. Right?
Well, no. Because if you accept all the above as “rock,” you have to accept the other side of the coin too; an army of talented and immature grown children all with poor impulse control, suffocating on vomit, shot by fans, shot by their own hand, watching as their friends convulse and die on sidewalks, fathering legions of children unloved and unknown, bringing bathtubs into the recording studio, breaking up by fax, breaking up by hit single, breaking up by certified mail, throwing gargantuan tantrums over green M&Ms, bickering in public over writing credits and creative control… all the tragic, dull, prurient, and tiresome outbursts that stuff the groaning shelves of your average bookstore’s music section.
And, okay, if U2 or the Rolling Stones construe “maturity” as figuring out how to stamp out a “Stones Record,” a “U2 album” on cue, fine. Often boring, but fine. But there’s another way.
Maybe it’s because I’m 35 and no longer plausibly a “young adult” in any sense of the word – (hell, I just bought a Persian rug and could probably stand to make an appointment with Dr. Coldfinger) but these days I’d rather hear from artists whose need to compose and perform music doesn’t presuppose a deathwish or a formal profit-sharing and trademark & likeness clause.
Take for example Late Season Kids, the third LP offering from Boston quintet The Beatings. Maybe the album title has something to do with goat husbandry, but maybe instead it has something to do with people whose Doc Martens are older than some of their co-workers; e.g. people like me. I’m betting on the latter; early midlife crisis is the best explanation for songs which start off with “Lighten up, kid / Don’t you slit your wrists,” or “When I was young I thought I’d be dead by twenty-five / But my luck is bad so I’ve had to live out the last ten years of my life.”
Who are the Beatings? They are five thirty-ish musicians from Boston and New York who have been making noisy, melodic indie rock together since 1999. Their second full-length release, Holding Onto Hand Grenades (Midriff Records, 2006) was my favorite rock album of that year on the strength of five or six unbelievably great songs that called to mind Mission of Burma, early Sonic Youth, Galaxie 500 and the Pixies. Late Season Kids is more of the same, but… better. More concise. More interesting. More, ah, mature.
Long before '80s revivalism was all the rage, The Beatings made no bones about their roots in post-punk and first-generation indie rock. Their stock in trade, like those influences, is edgy, scratchy, guitar-driven pop songs that thanks to generous bursts of noise and solid hooks walk the line between clatter and sweetness. Like Galaxie 500, Sonic Youth, and the Pixies, they even have a female bassist; apparently this is largely a Boston phenomenon. But this time, the band have expanded their sonic palette a little to include several aggressive hook-driven songs that recall Bob Mould (of Hüsker Dü and Sugar), a few epic touches that bring to mind Bruce Springsteen and the Arcade Fire (yes, really), and at certain points the skittish, sketchy guitar and manic vocals of Public Image Ltd’s Keith Levene and John Lydon.
I suppose to compare The Beatings to The Boss is to say that on Late Season Kids The Beatings are more confident, and have edited their songs more thoroughly, than before. The playing and performances are fully thought out, and all the big gestures hit the target. The middle of the album doesn’t sag, and no song sticks around long enough to wear out its welcome. And even if that last bit is very unBoss-like, it's definitely indicative of a tight and professional group of musicians.
Musical proof of the band’s new self-assurance is right there in the “sha-la-las” that underpin the chorus on the album-opening “Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained”, and in the throat-tearing Black Francis scream and trainwreck ending that ends the same tune – The Beatings follow this up with two more rock-solid songs, the Bob-Mould bittersweet of “Bury You” and the world weary “Youth Crimes,” before slowing down with the measured gait of “The Sleeper is No Fool.”
Even the songs in the soft middle of the album, where most bands stick their filler, are consistently surprising – suddenly you realize that the kids in “All The Things Your Missing” are dangerously bored, needles are washing up on shore, and menace looms, and lonely-man rant of “Parts Per Notation” builds and builds into an arresting exultation: “I think she’s taking me home… please God, make her take me home.”
All in all, Late Season Kids is a better album than The Beatings’ last one, which was really good. In a just world, it would outsell the latest mediocrities from any dozen Pitchfork-approved artists you could name, and hopefully it will. The Beatings are a band just beginning to hit their stride, and the fact that their latest album is better than their last one in measurable, identifiable ways, suggests that their next record will be their Let it Be… the Beatles or Replacements, take your pick.