Photo by AJJ
“More reviews of old albums? Why do you think people care about your opinions??” you say.
To you, dear reader, I reply with “I don’t even care about my opinions, but I have to write a weekly article or face expulsion! Bear with me!Û
The original route I was going to take with this article was reviewing AJJ’s live performance of the People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World album, bringing their old songs out on tour in commemoration to the 10 years of “people-knowing-this-album-literally-only-because-of-brave-as-a-nounÛ, etc. Putting Bible 2 songs on the back burner, Sean Bonnette and company have taken up their acoustic guitars and double basses once more, regressing into their Andrew Jackson Jihad incarnation for a few celebratory months of pure folk punk.
Unfortunately, to my chagrin, I let a complete blockhead handle my ticket, and long story short, I ended up unable to go. Now, I could wax bitter about this reality, whine about missing one of my favorite bands performing one of my favorite albums ever solely because of this loser’s pettiness, but you and I have better things to do with our time, so I chose the next best thing- review the album! So, here’s me and Trashcan Sam again with another attempt at being a layman’s Rolling Stone magazine music critic.
Or, in simple English, a Pitchfork music critic. I digress!
(Also, I covered “Brave as a Noun.” The link to the recording is at the end!)
Milo: A damn good album opener. The power that the first song on an LP has on the rest of a person’s listen is awesome, almighty. Flubbing from the get-go is either a sign of bad editing, or omen for a stinker; a band should avoid this to the best of their ability. Thankfully, “Rejoice” is a very good song! The rhyme scheme is simple, the words themselves aren’t thesaural, and it captures the two-sided nature that AJJ is known for fairly well. If you take off your thinking cap and only listen to the instrumentals, we encounter a fun ditty at worst. Now, following a subsequent return to the wearing of the thinking cap, we can hear a lyrical existential crisis that could give Vonnegut a wet dream over a sonic plethora of acoustic instruments, the red herring that distracts from the darkly-humored acceptance that Bonnette writes about regarding one’s suffering in life. The brass also presents a degree of instrumental variation that adds to the anxiously chaotic guitar-strumming some vibrancy, despite it grounding the strings as well. It accents, bends the straight-forward acoustics to musically emphasize the message of the chorus; if I may paraphrase, “everything is burning, but everything is alrightÛ. A beautiful, violent declaration to one’s own shortcomings and mortality, “Rejoice” fills me with life.
Trashcan Sam: Basic as they are, the lyrics are almost clunky, awkward, and adolescent, especially at the beginning. A problem with Bonnette is that he oftentimes puts himself into a lyrical, song-structural box, and his sentences end up too short or too long when set to music. The longer sentences aren’t an occurrence in this song, but the shorter ones certainly are; this results in Sean coping out by using “Fuck” or its derivatives as a crutch rather than as a device to serve the meaning of the song.
2. Brave As A Noun
Milo: What better way to introduce the album than by one-upping the first song on it with the song that everyone and their mother loves? This one is a flowing stream of banjo and brashly rhythmic guitar that gorges on the jittering hi-hat and the exact clap of the snare, sounding like some miscreant, deformed cousin of the Dubliners, but only if you remove all notions of an Irish reel. Yet, this isn’t criticism- we have ourselves here some mutant of a folk punk and pop nature, as if Frankenstein loved to barnyard slam-dance but actually enjoyed Homecoming dances when he was in high-school. But, as we all know, science is for nerds, nerds are an anxious creature, and an anxious creature is AJJ. So, “Brave As A Noun” finds it itself thick in the nasally-neurotic nomenclature that tends to frequent AJJ lyrics, with homicidal tendencies, reclusiveness, and genuine alienation being a few of this song’s thematic points. But, due to the nature of the song’s structure, our Bonnette sonnet converts itself into an anthem- the sound of literal handclaps with the drumbeat towards the end just begging for solidarity from the audience. Before you know it, you’ll be clapping and singing to this dark decathlon of a song, raving nutty. Hell, I promise you will.
Trashcan Sam: “Brave As A NounÛ, for AJJ, is what “Blisters in the Sun” was for Violent Femmes, except it doesn’t appear in any famous rom-coms from the 90s. As much as I enjoy the verse, the chorus falls flat. We are expected to follow what the singer means by “it is sad to knowÛ, etc., even though we subjectively might differ from the singer’s view. Bonnette is writing objectively, or, at least, not very abstractly, about mental illness. I find it a tad two-dimensional; a ghost of what could have been a darkly-sarcastic delivery and song experience. I applaud an attempt at catching a state of mind through words, but not when it distracts from the song’s goal (which is capturing a state of mind within song, ironically). Good, but could have been great.
3. Survival Song
Milo: The instruments are not precise in this one, preferring a continuously wild and reeling jig to the pop-strictness of the album’s first two songs. This captures the beautiful faux-naivety and simplemindedness that “Survival Song” expresses in its lyrics, as Sean Bonnette sounds more like a fanboy than a legitimate singer; the transparent first verses are wholehearted, almost adulatory towards the humdrum of life. When that awkward Woody Guthrie rip-off trips into the song, or when the editor uses a group singalong that is purposely out of place, off-key and amateur, or when Bonnette directly refers to the band’s copying the legendary folk singer, one realizes this is our band at its most brutally self-aware as well. They purposely chose to include the ineffectuality of their personal musical, lyrical, and creative ability in this 2 minute effort, referring to it all as “a giant load of gibberishÛ. The moral here is that being imperfect is ok, that trying to be your heroes is just as good as actually succeeding in doing so. AJJ is trying their best and having fun, staying humble; it is how they survive. I can’t help but smile when I listen.
Trashcan Sam: They should’ve kept the first minute and a half’s formula, as the remaining song’s slower rumble is more annoying than worthwhile. This is contradictory to the mentioned moral, because I think AJJ is trying too hard to be adept or musically complex- the reverse of what was sung about. Furthermore, all of the instruments in the first style are clumped closely together to create a mesh of undiscernible blurb bounding from what should be individually prevalent percussion and strings.
4. Bad Bad Things
Milo: Dark, dark, dark. The chords are dark, the words are dark; the nervous banjo and twiddling mandolin are maddening, sprawled like tentacles on either side of the menace in the middle, the guitar. The narrator isn’t singing at first, with the personification of mental illness and the narrator’s mother singing in his/her stead beforehand. It is after these representatives of the bad and good in the narrator’s life sing that the mental illness and singer become one, inflicting gory details onto the song. “Bad Bad Things” is entirely metaphor, the first of its kind on this album in terms of plot, and the bluntness of its synopsis is emphasized by the screams that drench the background. I didn’t notice these at first, but, as soon as I did, the effect it had on me was that I thought was riding a rollercoaster. I know that wasn’t the intention, but I think the song without the screams is already a ride in and of itself. A creepy AJJ outing without brakes!
Trashcan Sam: Bonnette is stretching and manipulating the words way too often here. The way he strangles “scream” in order to rhyme with “bleed” just isn’t necessary, and that’s only one linguistic offense out of many.
5. No More Tears
Milo: Cutesy, really. It is AJJ songs like these that make me feel young, though what that could mean needs to be explained. By young, I mean this song makes me feel youthful; the boyish naivety, face-level directness, and campfire-esque singalong quality it harbors reminds me of my Boy Scout days, years ago. Except this is infinitely better than anything those uniformed squares could produce (outside of “The Hearse SongÛ).
**P.S. Harley Poe did a great folk punk cover of “The Hearse SongÛ, so check that out when you want to. In fact, check out Harley Poe in general.
Trashcan Sam: The first thing you might’ve thought when you first saw this title was “No More Shame, No More Fear, No More DreadÛ, then possibly a good helping of “I amÛ, followed finally by “THE TRUTHÛ. If this was your case, then leave. This isn’t Bible 2, poseur. This is the real OG, the Jihad with a dead president in tow, chained like a dead raccoon to a vehemently raging and bearded teenager that had his first guitar lesson yesterday. “No More Tears” is that exactly, for better or for worse.
6. Bells & Whistles
Milo: AJJ loves singing about mental illness, but they can be abstract about it when they want to be. Thus, “Bells & Whistles” replaces the typical existentialist banter for a more experimental route- very strange childbirth. Of course, the “baby” in this song’s center is you, me, or the band. It could be anyone, but AJJ attacks regardless. The beginning is nothing short of exhilarating, and the electric guitar that sheens just out of view of the spotlight during the verse is a melodic vortex, ringing pervasively along with its sister instrumentation. Bonnette mans this sonic Socratic seminar, the provocateur singing in premonition to the thrashing acoustic-punk pandemonium that closes the song as it did in the start.
What’s more, “Bells & Whistles” really feels like a mosh-able song. The tight clean tone of the electric “charges” the acoustic with vitality, but the earthy strumming keeps feet on the ground, running round. Shimmer-punk, yo.
Trashcan Sam: Why, in writing this song, did AJJ choose to include Misfits “WhoasÛ? Yes, it works, it is catchy, but it feels like more tripping on the figurative shoelaces than a run to home-base here. Why didn’t they let the composition be shorter? They just glued more fat to a good-enough song.
7. Randy’s House
Milo: Somehow, this polka clusterfuck is melodious. Maybe this is thanks in good part to the storming drum rolls that flicker in and past the likewise zany guitar. And maybe, also, this is AJJ’s interpretation of ADHD, or a tribute to the effects of something you snort that also makes you gotta go fast. Something. Yeah, I’m spinning to the whimsy of the accordion. Listening, giggling, and wiggling my head.
Flipping the mood switch, the latter half of the song is an emotional roundhouse kick right in the proverbial teeth. The exhaust of the accordion and fiddle wheeze in suddenly, a swift change of pace that is matched by the newly somber singing of Sean. Quite thematic, really; the song is about a house burning down (masking various other underlying topics that frequent this album), and so the first part should be designed to resemble the hectic situation at first. But, as all fires, passions, or beliefs do, direness ceases eventually, and what remains is memory- eulogies that remain concurrent during the chaos but become truly vocal as it ends. And the bass just bumps to the blue, sinking me something fierce. I have to spit out a few tears, pardon me.
Trashcan Sam: Sean’s singing works at first because that “music” is carnage, and he doesn’t need to try very hard to emphasize that. Come ending, though, his whine just snuffs out my candle.
8. A Song Dedicated to the Memory of Stormy the Rabbit
Milo: Fuck, this one spooks me. The bright chiming of the xylophone is a damn trap, and I knew it as soon as Bonnette busted out the alliteration. My first thoughts were “Oh, more instrument experimentation! Cool!” until I began to trail off in time with the abrasive brass, the sizzling, sparking fiddle; dunked wholly, dried messily, and fevered smarmy by the musical eruption, intense until it became vapor, and myself a stupor. Prologue for a pillaging, forewarning for a sÌ©ance, and all before 50 seconds had passed. I tiptoe to the plucked strings, and have visions of folklore. There are witches cackling, cauldrons bubbling, fiddlers roofing, a depressed orchestra belting out their swan song. My soul sits idle until sucked wholly by this last will, but I am still listening as the last testament part of that dynamic duo is read at a minute and half in.
Alone, this song is AJJ’s Bible 1, or at least Bible 2’s version of the Old Testament. It sounds like a man reading out loud a midnight fable, surrounded by a dark fairytale setting lit up with each tap of the xylophone- a world silent together in a haunted congregation. This fantasy land cries in unison to the singer, transporting “WE’RE SADLY SIGHING” from a recording studio to atop an ancient pyramid as sandy winds whip past and blur vision. Morose mind-mumbles seep into my head, examples including how mortality births more mortality, life is but a moment before death, etc. I shudder, shiver, and pray.
And that is what this song makes me feel. Epically emotional, this one.
Trashcan Sam: The last verse is really strong, but the standards of the song as a whole are super high. As a result, it feels weak by comparison.
9. People 2: The Reckoning
Milo: Believe it or not, “People 2” is my favorite song on this album. The amount of inspiration I owe to it is stupidly large, and rightly so. It is the most lyrically successful song in the entire album, the longest and most complex. There are zero lines that aren’t at least poignant, entire subsets of interior emotion given a shade of attention within each sentence. There are pleads, there are mercies, but there are also intense sentiments, sarcastic criticisms. AJJ sees the human condition as a barely-accomplished success story, and the evil inherent within us all is the star attraction in what they describe to be an incompetently-designed game. Everything is hard in this game, the cards are not stacked in anyone’s favor in this game, and this game may well be the disassociation borne from someone in charge, someone to blame.
Mental illness is a hard-knock theme for this song. The chorus is not very subtly referring to the chemistry behind a Bipolar episode, admitted when they sing “And your bipolar illnessÛ- this, to me, intensifies the notion of cognitive impairment that the author exemplifies in his method of thinking. The landscape of this piece is as distorted as his thoughts can be, and these will warp pop tunes and pop sympathy into a misshapen clone that mirrors the narrator’s mind. Everywhere, and inside us, is the evil of people in society. In leaders, the criminals, in the band, in you; it resides in the guitar, the mandolin, the voice, until the “Mrs. Robinson” parody towards the end leads to another haunted congregation. Bonnette sounds like a preacher, fiery and wrathful in his call-and-respond sermon with the rest of AJJ, just as raving, just as mad.
To sum it up, “People 2” is the “Dr. Caligari” of folk punk, ingenious and beautiful in its corruption of the world through the speakers of your headphones.
Trashcan Sam: I enjoy the singing and lyrics so much that I really despise the beginning and ending instrumentals. All the other songs are under 4 minutes on this album, so I really do not see the need to bolster the length by such artificial means.
10. Personal Space Invader
Milo: “Personal Space Invader” is probably one of the best executed tracks on this record, and the song owes this to its chord progression. Sean’s strum pattern is not adventurous or brave by any technical means, but I feel as though these words arise from listening to his guitar. Maybe it’s the whistle, banjo, and mandolin that pump around his strings that allow the mass of all of it to soar? I do not quite know. I do know that “Personal Space Invader” is the only song out of the 11 total compositions that I turn on when I want to be cheered up, and that’s saying A LOT considering we are talking about AJJ.
Trashcan Sam: Most of the songs in People include bloopers or demos towards the start or end of the song, lasting maybe a few seconds at most. I want to emphasize “a few” because that doesn’t translate to 15 seconds of Bonnette fucking up and talking to the producer. What also sucks about this one is how radically different the beginning is to the end; the latter very sorely misses the uplifting charm of the first part. Hell, it’s ragingly average by comparison, to the point of boredom.
Milo: Cute curtain call, really. After all, this is an album about social anxiety, the general fear of people, and the sticky situations we find ourselves ending up in. Our last track is a visceral apology, a skier reaching the end of ski slope after a terrifying ride and realizing that he had fun. Our singer has come to his sense, and he loses the complex overthinking that landed him in this jam of an album in the first place. I do find, since this song is technically a prequel to “People 2Û, that maybe there’s a hint of cynicism that the band is leaving us. Even if we are ending People with a cheerful folk-pop outing, one day we will end up at “People 2” once again. And, maybe, that’s ok. That’s life, and we can’t ever determine our futures with a steady, sure hand.
And that’s why I love AJJ; they recognize that feeling, and are as terrified of it as anyone else is, but they’ll try anyway. Great album.
Trashcan Sam: Not gonna lie, this is the most boring song on the entire album. It didn’t make me think, it wasn’t fast, it was barely catchy. AJJ could have tried harder to come up with a better closer.
Anyway, here’s our cover of “Brave as a NounÛ!