AJJ – “The Bible 2”

(Photo Credit: AJJ)Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Cody’s Theme,” “Terrifyer”

Sometimes, punk bands grow up. There’s nothing that can stop a natural aging process. The Clash embraced reggae, the Offspring started writing about suicide, Green Day wrote a Broadway musical. What often gets mistaken as “selling out” is usually just a band’s members realizing their image is going to fade, and jumping the gun to adopt a new one. AJJ had hinted at this transition on their last album, the excellent “Christmas Island.” It opens with “Temple Grandin” and “Children of God,” two songs that are prime AJJ – fast, acoustic guitar mixed with lyrics that more-than-border on violence and gross imagery. But the album also included songs like “Linda Ronstadt,” which touches on the same loneliness that the band usually touches on, but with less violence, less disguises, and more palpable humanity. Sean Bonnette is better than anyone else in music at masking his own insecurities, faults and dark desires through characters, satire and overblown odes. But that started to chip on “Christmas Island,” and it gets stripped away on “The Bible 2.”

The band, sporting a new drummer, have awarded themselves a re-baptism: they abbreviated their name. AJJ, of course, used to stand for Andrew Jackson Jihad. But now it’s just “AJJ.” Partially because of maturity – I mean, their name was kinda racist for a bunch of Arizona white guys – partially because of an increase in actual Jihadist violence, and partially just because it’s what everyone called them anyways.  Eleven years after their first album, they’ve been re-christened, and it’s allowed them to expand, or decompress their sound and explore what they’ve previously ignored – their stance as an actual, successful band.

AJJ’s most progressive songs on “The Bible 2” aren’t necessarily the most interesting, because they’re slower and more adult than we’re used to. But this isn’t a bad thing; a lack of humanity, although AJJ’s strongest weapon, is also their biggest downfall. “American Garbage” is downright an indie song – a different cry than “American Tune” from only a few years ago. Slap a different band’s name on the song and it might pick up some airplay on college radio. Same goes for “Small Red Boy,” and “No More Shame, No More Fear, No More Dread,” which seems like a sequel to 2007’s “No More Tears,” but really isn’t. In fact, those two songs work together for a more honest, painfully aware song than any of the early guitar blasts.

All of this isn’t to say that old AJJ doesn’t pop in, too. Songs like “White Worms” and “Junkie Church” have lyrics that could’ve easily passed on any earlier album. “The waiting room was pissing in my ear / So we went and bought ourselves a can of beer / Steel Reserve,” Bonnette sings on the latter. The former: “My teeth are brown / My lips are blue / The grass is green / My tongue is too.” The horrors on this album don’t come as frequently. After years of songs like “Bad Bad Things,” “Back Pack” and “Dad Song,” there’s little that AJJ can sing in a song that’s still shocking. So, they reserve those moments. Opener “Cody’s Theme” has such lyrics, with the chorus: “I had to talk to the teacher / She had to talk to my mom / We had a real long talk / I had to talk to the teacher / She had to talk to my mom / They made the visions stop.” While this is nothing compared to the lyrics of, say, “Darling, I Love You,” they do announce that even if AJJ is growing, changing – they’re still the same at heart.

The secret weapon of “The Bible 2” is actually the songs that manage to place themselves in between ‘old’ and ‘new’ AJJ. “Cody’s Theme,” “Golden Eagle” and lead single “Goodbye, Oh Goodbye” all sound strangely reminiscent of Neutral Milk Hotel, with wickedly distorted guitar playing alongside acoustic. These songs almost act as the torchbearers, saying that yes, AJJ is transitioning, and no, they’re not changing completely. They could pass as indie songs, in a way, but it might not be a comfortable passing. “Terrifyer” might be one of the most interesting songs because its use of melody sounds pretty satisfying, while still giving in to the sound of “Sense & Sensibility,” in the best way possible.

Although I personally think the band hit a highest high with 2011’s “Knife Man,” this might be their most cohesive album. Musically, it hits more different territories than ever before. The album’s first half starts with guitar, dips gradually down into piano before revving back up for “Goodbye, Oh Goodbye.” And although the lyrics do once again embrace religion, mental illness, and deathly imagery, there’s broader topics at play. By shedding away the masks the band has previously used to hide their desires and delusions within the confinements of people worse then them, they’ve humanized themselves, fully, and even the first-person songs feel more real because of it. This isn’t a criticism of their older music – far from it, what they’ve done lyrically with the use of satire, violence, and irony is amazing – but simply an awareness that it was starting to get old. AJJ ran that line as long as they could, and, now that it’s over, they’re switching gears. While this is a transition album of sorts, there’s a lot to like, and it proves that AJJ might be able to bridge a gap that a lot of punk bands have previously failed – stay yourselves, stay interesting, yet change.

-By Andrew McNally

Best, Worst and Everything Else of 2014

2014

2014 was surely a year. I heard a lot of great albums, I missed a lot more. Really, I missed a ton of albums this year, guys, really didn’t do my one job right. Over on the Filtered Lens I compiled two “official” reviewer’s Top 10 Songs and Albums lists, but here I’m going stretch out, take off my tie and be totally personal. Here’s the crap I liked:

Top 10 Favorite Albums of the Year:

10. Andrew Jackson Jihad – “Christmas Island” (Review)
9. Tinashe – “Aquarius” (Review)
8. Future – “Honest” (Review)
7. Run the Jewels – “Run the Jewels 2”
6. Pharmakon – “Bestial Burden” (Review)
5. Modern Baseball – “You’re Gonna Miss It All” (Review)
4. Interpol – “El Pintor” (Review)
3. the Menzingers – “Rented World” (Review)
2. White Lung – “Deep Fantasy” (Review)
1. St. Vincent – “St. Vincent” (Review)

(Honorable mentions: Lana Del Ray’s “Ultraviolence,” Parquet Courts’ “Sunbathing Animal,” Perfect Pussy’s “Say Yes to Love,” Lakutis’ “Three Seashells” and The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die’s “Broken Bodies,” which originally sat at #7 until I decided an EP in a list of LP’s didn’t fit)

And now for tonight’s main event, my totally subjective, completely personal 30 Best Songs of the Year, regardless if they were singles or not:

30. FKA twigs – “Video Girl”
29. Andrew Jackson Jihad – “Temple Grandin”
28. Run the Jewels – “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck) [feat. Zack de la Rocha]”
27. Parquet Courts – “Sunbathing Animal” (Album Review)
26. Prince – “FUNKNROLL” (Album Review)
25. Foxygen – “How Can You Really” (Album Review)
24. Courtney Barnett – “Avant Gardener”
23. Andrew Jackson Jihad – “Children of God”
22. Lakutis – “Too Ill For the Law” (Album Review)
21. Jeremih, YG – “Don’t Tell ‘Em”
20. The Creeping Ivies – “The Creeps” (Album Review)
19. White Lung – “I Believe You”
18. MisterWives – “Reflections” (EP Review)
17. Jessie J/Ariana Grande/Nicki Minaj – “Bang Bang”
16. Pharmakon – “Bestial Burden”
15. Beck – “Wave” (Album Review)
14. the Menzingers – “In Remission”
13. Phantogram – “Fall in Love”
12. Tinashe – “2 On (feat. ScHoolboy Q)”
11. Nicki Minaj – “Anaconda”
10. Sia – “Chandelier”
9. the Menzingers – “Rodent”
8. Interpol – “All the Rage Back Home”
7. St. Vincent – “Rattlesnake”
6. Bruce Springsteen – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”
5. White Lung – “Drown With the Monster”
4. Phantogram – “Black Out Days”
3. Grimes – “Go (feat. Blood Diamonds)”
2. Future – “Move That Dope (feat. Pusha T, Pharrell, Casino)”
1. St. Vincent – “Birth in Reverse”

Here’s a link to a Spotify playlist of 29 of these songs (the Lakutis album “Three Seashells,” which has song #22, is not on Spotify)

And here’s thirty more songs I loved (but not enough to rank), in alphabetical order, by artist:

Aphex Twin – “180db_[130]”
Iggy Azalea – “Black Widow” (god, I’m sorry)
Beyonce/Jay-Z – “Drunk in Love”
Big Data – “Dangerous”
Bleachers – “I Wanna Get Better”
Cardinal Cardinal – “When I’m Not Alone”
Clean Bandit/Jess Glynne – “Rather Be”
DJ Snake/Lil’ Jon – “Turn Down For What”
Drake – “0 to 100/The Catch Up”
Foxygen – “Can’t Contextualize My Mind”
Ariana Grande/Iggy Azalea – “Problem”
Maroon 5 – “Maps”
the Menzingers – “I Don’t Wanna Be an Asshole Anymore”
Milky Chance – “Stolen Dance”
Modern Baseball – “Fine, Great”
Bob Mould – “I Don’t Know You Anymore”
the Orwells – “Who Needs You”
Parquet Courts – “Ducking & Dodging”
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – “American Dream Plan B”
Shakira/Rihanna – “Can’t Remember to Forget You”
Sleeper Agent – “Waves”
St. Vincent – “Bring Me Your Loves”
Taylor Swift – “Shake It Off”
Tove Lo – “Habits (Stay High)”
the World is a Beautiful Place and so on and so on – “If and When I Die”
You Blew It! – “Surf Wax America” (Weezer cover)

Superlatives:

Best guest spot: 1) YG on Jeremih’s “Don’t Tell ‘Em”
2) ScHoolboy Q on Tinashe’s “2 On”
3) Pusha T, Pharrell and Casino on Future’s “Move That Dope”

Worst guest spot: Eat the cake, anime

Best cover song: “Surf Wax America” – You Blew It!

Best two bands that are great but I still have a little trouble telling apart – You Blew It! and Modern Baseball

Most Irritating Song of the Year: 1) “Lazaretto” – Jack White
2) “Rude” – Magic! (sorry, I know that’s a big blow to the Canadian reggae scene)
3) “Animals” – Maroon 5

Best Person to Wish He Were Born in a Different Generation and For Us to All Agree: Jack White!

Best Jack White Album: The Black Keys – Turn Blue! Fight me.

Best Free U2 album: an illegally downloaded copy of “The Joshua Tree”

Best Classic Rock Album Overshadowed by U2: Tom Petty & the Heatbreaker’s “Hypnotic Eye.” Sorry, AC/DC, Pink Floyd and Bruce.

Best Prince: “Art Official Age”

Worst Prince: “Plectrumelectrum”

Best Death Grips Album: “Run the Jewels 2”

Worst Death Grips Album: “N****s on the Moon”

Best Unplugged Performance: Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Super Bowl

Worst Unplugged Performance: Probably any other Red Hot Chili Peppers performance

Best “Chinese Democracy”: Pink Floyd’s “The Endless River”

Best Adjective Mike: Killer Mike

Worst Adjective Mike: Fat Mike

Best Album That Made Most Reviewer’s Top 10 Lists That I Didn’t Listen to Because Ariel Pink is a Shithead: “pom pom” – Ariel Pink

Most Intentionally Terrifying Song: “Bestial Burden” – Pharmakon

Most Unintenionally Terrifying Song: “Lock the Door” – Robin Thicke

Best/Worst Song Titles: Aphex Twin

Best Band Name: The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die

Worst Band Name: The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die

A song that I would like to let you know exists: “Got Me Runnin’ Round,” a collaboration between Nickelback and Flo Rida. Seriously.

Potential albums to look forward to in 2015: Sleater-Kinney – “No Cities to Love” (1/20)
Two Gallants – “We Are Undone” (2/3)
Father John Misty – “I Love You, Honeybear” (2/10)
Hot Sugar – “God’s Hand” (2/24)
Heems – “Eat Pray Thug” (3/3) (solo debut from the Das Racist frontman – keep an eye out for this one)
Modest Mouse – “Strangers to Ourselves” (3/3)
Madonna – “Rebel Heart” (3/10)
Wale – “The Album About Nothing” (3/31) (Yes, the collaborative album with Jerry Seinfeld)
Chance the Rapper – “Surf”
Death Grips – “the powers that b”
Run the Jewels – “Run the Jewels 3” and “Meow the Jewels,” the cat version of “Run the Jewels 2”
2015 also might hold new albums from Kendrick Lamar, Sky Ferreira, Beyonce, Adele, Drake, Metz, Radiohead, Rihanna, Kanye, Deafheaven, Frank Ocean, Waxahatchee, and Giorgio Moroder’s first album since 1992, if we’re lucky.

See you with even more cynicisms next year!

-Andrew McNally

(PS – this is, by sheer coincidence, this blog’s 200th post!)

Andrew Jackson Jihad – “Christmas Island”

Grad: B+

Key Tracks: “Temple Grandin” “Children of God”

When you think Andrew Jackson Jihad, “cryptic” isn’t quite the word that comes to mind. Their lyrics are puzzling, but far too direct to be “cryptic.” This is the band that once posed, “When a pregnant woman gets decapitated, does the baby survive?” But on their new full-length, “Christmas Island,” the band is a little more thought-provoking. They expand on folk-punk, embracing a bigger sound and lyrics that are even more unconventional. “Christmas Island” isn’t AJJ’s best album, but it takes the better parts of their two best albums and finally combines them into one.

Andrew Jackson Jihad’s best albums are probably their ’07 debut, “People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World,” and 2011’s “Knife Man.” The two albums really aren’t that similar, but “Christmas Island” aims to bridge the gap. It largely succeeds, as they expand their acoustic sound without getting too self-indulgent in electric rhythms. A vast majority of “Christmas Island” is acoustic, aimed less at energy than it is at poetry. Although the band is still aimed at devastating, almost demented poetry, they turn their focus back towards stripped down elements.

“Christmas Island” benefits from having flow, something that has hindered AJJ’s past albums. While their past albums have been wholly stellar, they often lacked any sort of narrative flow, often opting instead for shocking and abrasive lyrics. “Christmas Island” lets some some songs take a backseat for others, knowing which pack the biggest emotional punches. Opener “Temple Grandin” is a fight against autism, channeling the autism research hero. “Best Friend” is steeply poetic and existential, while “Angel of Death” is just as randomly self-deprecating as their earlier music.

Folk-punk is a genre that doesn’t ask much from a musical standpoint, but Andrew Jackson Jihad focus a little more on an expanded sound on this album. There are more instruments, often including piano and strings into the songs. And the songs are a little more rounded, instead of just the guitar attacks of the past. And there’s more slower songs, helping the album feel a little more complete. “Christmas Island” shows hints at maturity. There’s more diversity in the music, and more depth in the lyrics. They’ve always been a weird and unsettling band, but the lyrics on “Christmas Island” are so staunchly self-indulgent that Noisey had the band explain them. The album is peppered with lines like “eyes as red as a dog’s asshole when you see it shitting” (“Children of God”) and “I am the Kool-Aid on the mouth of a kid whose name is most likely Cody” (“Angel of Death”), which also mentions the Slap-Chop and their own Salad Glove. This is definitely AJJ’s most puzzling album yet, even if it ‘feels’ a little more mature.

So “Christmas Island” is both a step forward and a step back. They’ve re-embraced acoustic music – the only electric song is “Kokopelli Face Tattoo,” right in the album’s middle – while broadening it into a fuller sound. And they’ve deepened their lyrics, so they aren’t as aggressively violent and perverse, while still keeping them demented and inquisitive. “Christmas Island” suffers from a few too many cooled down songs (they are a punk band, after all), but it’s the right step forward for a band whose formula was growing a little tired. I’ve written about seeing AJJ before, and although “Christmas Island” doesn’t quite stand up to their best works, it’s easy to give it the benefit of the doubt. It’s one that will leave you just as puzzled and frightened as anything they’ve done before.

If you like this, try: the only band I can ever recommend in the same breath as AJJ, check out Defiance, Ohio’s 2006 album “The Great Depression.” The band’s best album perfectly balances screaming and singing over hyper-folk-punk, acoustic music.

-By Andrew McNally

Andrew Jackson Jihad – “Live at the Crescent Ballroom”

(Photo credit: bandcamp.com)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Gift of the Magi 2: Return of Magi,” “People II 2: Still Peoplin'”

I normally wouldn’t take the time to review a live album – they’re not designed to grab any new fans. But I happened to see Andrew Jackson Jihad on this tour. Not this show, as it was recorded on their last night, in Phoenix. But I saw them at Europa in Brooklyn, days after Hurricane Sandy. The show was originally scheduled for Manhattan, but the southern portion of the borough was still without power. It was kind of an emotional time, and one that the band mentions numerous times on the album as the tour’s “dark days.” We were late to the show because public transport was a mess. We missed the opening bits of the appropriately-timed “Hurricane Waves,” from opening act Jeff Rosenstock (singer for my second favorite band, Bomb the Music Industry!). Future of the Left came on second, and for a third time proved themselves one the best live bands in all of music (I had previously seen them earlier that summer, and once opening for Against Me! way back in 2007). Jeff’s do-whatever DIY, FOTL’s political noise-punk and AJJ’s folk-punk never seemed like a logical line-up, but it was three great bands.

It only makes sense that the band would record their live album on the last stop. The band is a little worn-out and had experienced some unexpected dark days on the tour. And at one point, during “American Tune,” both the guitar and vocals cut out. After “Bad Things,” rude fans start requesting songs they know. It makes sense. Andrew Jackson Jihad has never shied away from ugliness in their music – “Back Pack” is about finding your loved one murdered, carrying her into town and wondering what her life could’ve been. It’s an imperfect show for a band that isn’t remotely looking for approval or purity.

This 2012 tour was a full band tour, not something they always do. They actually focus more on the electric songs, opening with the double-dose of “We Didn’t Come Here to Rock” and “Distance.” They do a great job placing fan favorites like “Big Bird,” “Rejoice” and “Hate, Rain On Me” among relative unknown songs, like “Kokopelli Face Tattoo,” “#armageddon” and “Inner City Basehead History Teacher.”

They spend a lot of time in between songs chatting, which can be a little cumbersome for a listener. But they have to, they were doing constant guitar switches. At the end of “People II 2: Still Peoplin’,” the band has to play an extended note so the singer can switch from acoustic to electric for the final ten seconds.

The album is surprisingly long, but they pack it with enough familiar songs to make it a very satisfying listen. With typical folk-punk, it’s fast, it’s messy and it’s got deeply unsettling lyrics. This live album won’t gain any new fans, but it is a great pick-up for current ones. Andrew Jackson Jihad is one of my favorite bands, and to have a record of the tour when I saw them is kinda special.

-By Andrew McNally