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

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