BY BARRY ST. VITUS
America’s most changeable punk outfit has dropped their fifth release, again, pushing out in new directions on several of the 13 tracks. Long-time fans will find a lot to like here, while others will be tantalized by their pivoting from mostly punk driven, to a funk driven mode for a few tracks. There was a concerted effort to branch out and incorporate some previously unexplored sounds. For Austin Brown, it was digging into old faves like Parliament, Grace Jones and The Upsetters and, the decision to bring in producer Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton to punch things up. E.g., the title track, “Wide Awake,” a repetition of the same lines, heavy Afro beats, whistle blasts and all-around rumpus, as performed live on Ellen (!) recently, and a big hit for her and the audience.
Oddly enough, it was Burton, a PC fan, who approached the band, wanting to work with them. It was a peculiar notion to Andrew Savage, who thought that perhaps the juxtaposition might just goose things up in a different way for them, which to the band, is always a desirable course. Andrew notes, “I liked the idea that it didn’t make sense to work with him, which to me makes perfect sense as to why we should work with him.”
Andrew, in the meanwhile, dug through his records for punk classics like Flipper, the Minutemen, Big Boys, etc. noting that he always like the playfulness of Minutemen and Big Boys, and how the latter mixed funk into their sound. The band has long been trotting out songs that are influenced by everyone they grew up listening to.
“Violence” is another number that jumps the tracks, with Andrew’s adenoidal vocals doing a declamatory rap/rant, a’ la the Last Poets, against the violence that our society is forced to live with every damn day.
Opening with some firm power chords, “Total Football” then shifts smoothly into a Buzzcockian stride with shouted lyrics regarding the faux fury raised against players who dare to kneel at games: “It is dishonest, nay, a sin to stand for any anthem that attempts to drown out the roar of oppression.” And, if you still don’t get it, see the last line, please: “Fuck Tom Brady.”
The verbiage in “Before the Water Gets Too High” is thick, as Savage is wont to do, wagging a finger of warning, that I don’t fully grasp, but the song has their familiar flavor and sound as it slinks along. “Extinction” and “Tenderness” also sound like something familiar from their past albums.
The muted but nostalgic tone of “Mardi Gras Beads” takes a sentimental, shoegazing turn that is reminiscent of their “Dear Ramona” from the superb Sunbathing Animal album. And, as “Raw Milk” slides into “Into the Garden” on that album, so does the head-banging “Almost Had to Start A Fight” melt into the head-bobbing franticness of “In And Out Of Patience.”
An organ adds extra sweetness to the embraceable ”Freebird II,” a melodic tune with a sing-a-long quality.
“Normalization” returns to an in-your-face approach, and speculates that…
”Nothing is normal,
Manipulated into believing,
I’m exercising skepticism,
Honesty is everything.”
What the fuck does ‘normal’ even mean anymore, in this ‘fake news’ bullshit world?
Andrew, interestingly, shifts into Morrison mode on “Back To Earth,” with its wisps of “Strange Days” swirling around.
“NYC Observation” is a pithy look at the pissy streets of the city, trod by it’s wary, ‘keep your eyes down, don’t engage,’ residents.
Brown’s elegiac, darkly tinged, world weary “Death Will Bring Change,” is supported nicely with a 15-member boys chorus, which will immediately remind you of something.
“Tenderness” lopes along at a slow pace, with a piano peppering the rhythm, and more choice lyrics by Andrew, and his sharp observations about life and the people that surround us…
“Well, I can’t count how many times I’ve been undone by nihilism,
Joined the march that splits an open heart into a schism,
I cower at the thought of other people’s expectations,
And yet still hand over mine to them.”
Andrew points out that it was important to him to steer away of being too ballad-y, like 2016’s Human Performance, and aiming more at just making people dance. They deliver on that goal, as well as presenting a lot of well-written and well-played songs on Wide Awake. The album is garnering a lot of well-deserved praise from all quarters. I’m admittedly on the fence that this is the best thing they’ve ever done. There are really no stunners like Light Up Gold’s mind-blowing “Stoned and Starving,” or Sunbathing Animal’s Flaming Lips-y sludge of “She’s Rollin’,” with its Beefheart-skronk bridge.
For me at least, Wide Awake will have to respectfully play 3rd place behind Sunbathing Animal and Light Up Gold, as those are the ones to beat. When you constantly push for more diversity on each new album, you end up being unable to honestly compare because of the small differences on each one, or, ending up with something like 2015’s wtf? Monastic Living exercise. It’s like comparing three holiday feasts like Christmas dinner, Thanksgiving dinner and a big Independence Day picnic. They are all what they are. You can have a favorite, but who can say which is truly The Best? I have the utter-most confidence that they probably will surpass those 3 albums someday, as they have a ‘fire in their belly,’ are wide awake, and very conscious guys.
DOWNLOAD: “Mardi Gras Beads,“ “Freebird II,” “Almost Had To Start A Fight / In And Out Of Patience,” and “Total Football.“