With the advent of The Warped Tour in 1995 (adding the Vans brand in 1996), “pop-punk” seemed to move from a genre to a commodity. The broader genre – punk rock with pop melodies – became a more distinctive sound, primarily focused on the successful labels, Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords. Impressively, that specific genre of pop-punk became such a powerful, sustainable industry, it dominated conversations I had with strangers.
“I listen to a lot of punk.”
“Punk? So, you like Pennywise?!”
“Well, yeah, but there’s so much more…”
“So, you’re kind of a disaffected, aloof, no-fun jerk.”
Pop in punk rebranded into other subgenres: emo, melodic hardcore, power pop… but very rarely it ever returned to pop-punk. That Warped Tour stigma stunk so bad and subsequent generations had little variation from their formula, that pop-punk was rendered toxic in the DIY world. Suddenly, the genre was the bratty little sibling that you wanted to leave at home, because whatever you were doing was sooooooo mature.
Even a few years ago, a friend and I were walking home from a bar – or two, tree. He had been in a quiet mood all night. When we got to my stoop, with the courage of copious beers and the 2am bewitching hour, he unloaded on me. Earlier in the night, a mutual friend described his Wipers-inspired melodic punk band as “pop-punk” and it soured him. He fretted, “I don’t think we sound anything like what was on Lookout! in the 90s.” He felt misunderstood, but I could sense the aversion to the term “pop-punk” was pretty strong.
In 2000, I was doing my college radio show on WKNC. The Music Director sent me anything labeled punk, 90% of which were pop punk bands doing that Epitaph/Fat Wreck pop-punk formula. I got a package that included a number of Hopeless Records releases, one of which was Dillinger Four’s Versus God. I had been apathetic to them – due to that whole pop-punk thing – but I also knew there was some serious buzz on this release. I put it on. Yep, it certainly was pop-punk. I marked a few songs to play on my show, and sent it back to the Music Director with a suggestion to put it into the station’s daytime format.
For the next few weeks, I kept coming back to Dillinger Four. Obviously, it’s catchy – Versus God’s success in regular rotation and requests during my show supported that. But, there was something deeper that vaulted the band over the bar of low expectations for the genre.
A lot of the pop-punk from that era suffered from sticking to a homogenous brand, so albums were generally monotonous from start to finish. Dillinger Four employs three distinct singers: poppy, burly, and burliest. Each contrast played a foil, and smart songwriting provided another layer of counterpunch. The transition of “Total. Fucking. Gone. Song” to “Music is None of My Business” weaves in and out of a Botch-like breakdown riff to a kid’s choir to an indulgent noise collage, stops, throws in a obligatory dialog sample, and enters the next track with a booming, anthemic pop-punk riff that’s straight out of a teen sex comedy soundtrack.
To change up vernaculars on a dime like that is often the work of a learned mind – so there’s more to Dillinger Four than they let on. With song titles that verge on scene in-jokes, sardonic lyrics that expand past the genre’s tropes, and a general sense of self-awareness, they proved not just an adept pop-punk band, but a mastery of the culture surrounding it.
I asked my friend Tommy about them. “Ah, they’re ok. I mean, pretty good for pop-punk,” There it is, again! He relayed an anecdote of seeing them live in Columbia, South Carolina, where they goaded an unimpressed crowd with a joke that pretty much went through Chris Bickel’s discography. I was eventually enlightened to their own hardcore roots (ex-Billingsgate!) and learned they’re all a bunch of record nerds much like the ones that probably read this blog.
Dillinger Four fans are probably itching for a mention of their superior debut, Midwestern Songs of the Americas. On my last day of work at the record store, right before moving from Raleigh to Chicago, I picked it up. And there was no better introduction to the Midwest than that record, but that’s a story for another day.
Kombat: In Death We Are All the Same 7” (Hysteria)
This DC outfit played The Bunker a few months back with a set that sounded like a compounded unspooling. Slackjawed, I looked over at Daniel, who remarked, “That was one of the best punk sets I’ve seen all year.” On record, we get that relentless rhythm section with frenzied guitars on one compact slab. Even better: when it’s backing the Kombat video game.
Body Kit / Drippy Inputs: split 7” (Acid Etch Recordings)
Surely you’ve noticed the copious amounts of Rich Ivey fellating on this here website, and maybe heard a SSR clerk gush on his genius. The latter I bear witness to TWICE, even. Bodykit is an electronic duo (Ivey and Josh Lawson) that continues the idiosyncratic soundscapes of their previous band, Whatever Brains. Their contribution to this split is a lurching, creepazoid thriller that could easily back a Tim Burton funeral march. Drippy Inputs has the dance-worthy side, with a seedy, lo-fi bass thump that sounds filtered through some warehouse drywall, shaking off bits of debris, as the track works itself into a manic frenzy.
Rapsody: Laila’s Wisdom (Jamla Records / Roc Nation)
With her steady rise from the NC State dorms to the rare guest verse on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, you’d think Rapsody’s breakthrough debut would highlight that coming of age wisdom born from such success stories. But, no – Rapsody has always shown smart, even-keeled maturity, even in her early work. Now with Jay-Z’s backing, her introduction to the world is still the same Rapsody – Durham’s 9th Wonder carries the production load and her flows are rife with sharp command and thoughtful wordplay. What’s different? It feels a lot more marinated. There’s a variation here that wasn’t in Rapsody’s previous wheelhouse. The guests are given huge verses. Even the production takes more risks. It’s a bigger album in every way, but doesn’t feel like a huge departure – just the work of a seasoned veteran getting her due.