(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, June 29, 2009

CD review - Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown

I have a soft place in my heart for bands I think of as "Snotty Boys with Guitars". The guitars part is pretty straightforward, but the snotty part is every bit as important: there's a bit of sneer, contempt, and wit. "Boys" isn't meant to be sexist, but to indicate the sort of juvenile approach the band takes. There are scads of these bands about: Lit, Blink 182, the Refreshments, the Ramones, even my favorite German band, Die Ärzte. They're often categorized as punk, but there's always a strong pop music sensibility, too.

Green Day has been one of my more recent favorites in this little sub-genre. They've even proved that within the relatively simplistic world of three or four chord songs great art can be made. American Idiot was a masterpiece with a grander view than single songs. It's hard for any band to follow a great album with something that measures up artistically. There are really two paths: build on the last one to carry that vision forward or turn around and do something completely different. 21st Century Breakdown takes the first path, which means it's always going to be measured against American Idiot. It's a good album that suffers from that comparison.

Like it's big brother, 21st Century Breakdown has the grinding double and triple tracked guitars, declamatory singing, and grand musical gestures. It follows a similar structural approach of songs feeding into each other, with lyrical and musical cross references. Unfortunately, its story is less coherent and the songs don't have the impact of Jesus of Suburbia or She's a Rebel. Even though the new album tries a little too hard, they do manage to evoke some of the grandeur of Styx or Moving Pictures-era Rush. This is partly from the style of the arrangement, but also from the chorused, reverb-laden vocals backed by a wall of grinding guitars.

Green Day shares a lot of their influences, whether intentional or not. Christian's Inferno is a high tempo version of Bauhaus. The verses in East Jesus Nowhere recall Alice Cooper's The Black Widow. Radiohead even lurks behind Restless Heart Syndrome. They manage to avoid sounding derivative because they have a strong enough aesthetic that carries through.

If you can put the baggage of American Idiot out of your mind, there are some good songs that stand out. Know Your Enemy is a bouncy, thrashy anthem. Green Day has written this song before, but I always enjoy it. Chainsaw guitars, a dusting of '80s synth, and their patented dynamic of stripping down to just a simple guitar and voice for part of the last chorus.

Before the Lobotomy reaches for a little of the glory of American Idiot. Hints of the Who filtered through the Knack anchor the pop bridge (A Quick One, While He's Away meets Good Girls Don't). And some of that Rush influence I mentioned. The song has a nice progression of sections that holds my ear each time it comes up. In comparison, The Static Age has more of that Knack sound, but the song isn't nearly as well written.

Murder City is another strong track. It paints a great scene of a lawless land that's falling apart. The energy is manic and it's full of great phrases that grab the ear:
Desperate but not hopeless
I feel so useless in the Murder City
Desperate but not helpless
The clock strikes midnight in the Murder City
Any song that makes me want to sing along by the second chorus gets my vote.

American Eulogy bookends the album, reprising the fake radio broadcast of the first song. But after that's out of the way, they kick into the anthemic rock they do the best. Namechecking Christian and Gloria (the character threads that run through many of the songs), this is another one of those sectional songs that feels more like a medley. It does capture that breakdown feel, though.

If you like Green Day, you'll enjoy this. There are no major surprises; it's just not as stellar as American Idiot. Even though Green Day isn't really a "stout" band, I'd pair this with Tooth Sheaf Stout, which has a complementary roast bitterness.

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