The first album by the Gateway District, 2009's Some Days You Get the Thunder is a complete favourite of mine. They are a band comprised of members of other such great bands as the Soviettes, Dear Landlord and Banner Pilot. Like Cheeky, Caves and the Measure [SA] they could broadly be described as scratchy pop-punk with female vocals in the Discount tradition. The way I sold people on their first album was by telling them that it was like the Measure [SA] if you replaced all the spindly indie/folky influences with rollicking country ones.
Granted, there is practically no country influence on this album–in fact, there are bits of the album (especially in the opener) that at times reminds me of an oft-overlooked pop-punk album that is put down because of its origins, and that's the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack album. People get sniffy about it, which is fair enough, because it is the slick product of a team of Hollywood screenwriters and major label musicians working for hire, and we all want to believe that something is inevitably going to be better if it comes from a place of desire and naive, unstudied creative impulse. But if you retagged that album, knocked off the titular closing track and sent it to someone really into that late 70s power-pop Runaways/Joan Jett style, or even the classic Lookout!/Ramonescore sound, telling them it was by the Battledykes or the Spazzys, they would lose their shit over it. This Gateway District album is infinitely better than Josie and the Pussycats, and it's nowhere near as saccharine sweet, but in its moments of sheer fun and infectiousness it bears a few recognisable strands of the same bubblegum DNA.
A far more prominent part of their sound is Jawbreaker. That certain feel that comes from the thick, prominent chugging bass, that sort of rolling train rhythm, the clunk-and-clang of metal-on-metal twisted into a propulsive motion. That's the central sound here, but like last year's brilliant Dead Mechanical album, they eschew the more sprawling tendencies of Jawbreaker, ending up somewhere near what the short pop-punk of "Bad Scene, Everyone's Fault", off the slightly slicker major label Dear You–that is, what it might sound like if it had been sung with the painful vocal exasperation and rawness of feeling and production of their earlier albums.
There's not a bad song on this album, but a few do really stand out. "New Hands" has a slow, tense opening over which your hear, "When they cut off my hands they threw me money. I grew new hands so I could pick it up. When they cut off my legs they all came for me. I grew new hands, to escape this love", where the guitar chords are like the tolling of a bell. The whole intro reminds me of a dolorous Soviet worker's anthem sung in ironic defiance, the power of a single voice erasing for just a moment the cold trudge of totalitarian unity (or maybe it just reminds me of that Wat Tyler song which pretends to be a Leninist people's hymn), before the whole situation snaps into raging life and blasts through the rest of the song in the same punk tone that dominates the album.
"Fishman's Story" is a song that trades off the mystery and appeal of the sea and the long history of art dealing with that topic, like Mark Richard's Fishboy, or that Simpsons joke where Homer announces "I'll live out at sea. The sea forgives all! Not like those mean old mountains. I hate them so much!" The humour in Homer's announcement comes from a physical counterpoint highlighting the absurdity of the way we do tend to anthropomorphise the sea, despite it being such a huge geographical object, such an unknowable elemental force, we assign it human characteristics and personality, but we can't help it. The sea is such a large potent image, such an awesome physical presence that its metaphoric power is almost unlimited. Here are some cheap poetry mad libs for you: The (object) was like the sea. She (past tense of a verb) like the sea. He had the (emotion) of the sea inside him. Kind of always works, doesn't it? The song here starts off in the same slow manner as "New Hands", building and falling, speeding up and slowing down. She sings "No one knows there's a wreck that's shifting under there / No one knows it's the wreck not the wind that causes waves to tear," equating the depth and blackness of the sea with the depths of the human soul, as many have done before. As far as an approach to the topic, of course it works, and the song is really great, one of my favourites on the album, but my personal favourite song dealing with this broad topic is (you guessed it) a Jawbreaker song, "The Boat Dreams from the Hill", which deals with the yearning for purpose, in which the sea is not a moonlit mass aswell with human desire and emotion, but the place where we can return to; the sea is a simple home where the boat dreams of "fishy flutter on its rudder."
The Gateway District have constructed a well put-together album that never runs out of steam or drags, as it works that thick, overdriven Jawbreaker base into an insistent cohesive work. But it isn't perfect. While it has some real high points, as I've mentioned already, none of them quite grabbed me by the throat as the way the music peters out for a second on the title track of Some Days You Get the Thunder before the titular lyric is screamed. Or the drumless bit on "Lake St. Is for Suckers" that draws you down into this small, dreamy and seductive vision of getting stoned on Motörhead's tour bus travelling through Georgia, treating Lemmy as a combination of a confidant and some growling bewarted sage. I think I do still prefer the first album which did all that Perfect's Gonna Fail does sonically and also incorporated some Pretty Boy Thorson-style country shunt into their sound. You could describe the first album as roughly somewhere between a sped-up version of "Kiss the Bottle", and a sped-up version of Lucero's cover of "Kiss the Bottle", whereas here they've stripped away the Lucero and I'm not entirely sure why; maybe they just got bored with it.
These aren't massive criticisms, really. They're not big putdowns. They're an inevitable damnation springing from unrealistic but warranted comparison to the perfect ur-sound that someone's try to evoke, so Perfect's Gonna Fail would be a very good, extremely listenable piece of work if all it did was call up memories of Blake Schwarzenbach and co., but it doesn't just do that. So why does Perfect's Gonna Fail, shorn of the country twang that was blended seamlessly into their basic rolling punk rock sound on its predecessor, not just make me want to put on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy again? And it's simple: It's the voice.
It's an amazing voice. It would have to be to evoke even for a second the lovelorn spell of Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" as a moment about 50 seconds into "Fishman's Story" does. It's a pair of amazing voices, I should say. The Gateway District has two dueling singers who are both pretty similar, to the extent where I can't actually tell which one is singing until they're both singing at the same time, and one is usually at a slightly higher pitch than the other. It's confusing sometimes, like someone performing a duet with themselves. But they're both fucking great. The vocals are so key to the whole appeal of this band. They yelp and sneer and drawl. They croon and howl and talk. They ache. They really fucking sing. The vocals combine both the integral collaborative nature of way the Measure [SA]'s vocals work in concert with the music and the fierce blustering power present in the vocals of Caves or Cheeky. The Gateway District's vocals don't just work perfectly with the music though; they play brilliantly off of each other, one working as a slightly discordant reflection placed either as an airier version of the deep furious scope of the lead vocals, or a thick booming shadow of their lighter force, a wild polyphony of sound focusing a taut harmony of emotion. In this they remind me of the way the Vindictives so fantastically utilised the voice as a structural tool in songwriting, "whoa-oh"s dipping and diving around the lead singer, sometimes used for wordless wailing like another instrument, sometimes jumping in with poppy echoes to repeat a phrase, sometimes joining in for just the emphasis of a word or two like a hip-hop crew. The raucous phrasing, the way that Carrie and Maren know exactly when to drag a word out with a single lonely howl and when to spit it quickly with a twinned shout, lends the lyrics far more weight and meaning than they would have not just as written, but as sung by just one person throughout in a smoother voice.
I have actually seen them live but I can't quite remember who sang most of the songs as I was slightly pissed and dancing madly with my one friend trying to distract myself from the fact that most of the crowd who had gone nuts for some of the opening bands had fucked off, or if they stayed just formed the indifferent semi-circle of arms-crossed doom around my effusively bopping self and my mate Rich. They deserve such a better response than that. They're a band full of talent; just listen to the way they build atmosphere with the escalating repetition of "You worthless piece of shit. You worthless piece of shit" on "Blue Halls" as it crops up through the song first as a murmur of doubt and then later as a shrieking, hateful accusation. Just listen to the way the line "She's been good to you, to me too" on "Queen Avenue" is pulled off with the almost Sinatran snap of an approximated "do-be-do" thrown into the racket. Despite the fact I prefer Some Days You Get the Thunder, this is fine punk songwriting shining and sucking you in with the fun, the tightness and fullness of their sound, and then blowing you away with the conviction of their lyrics conveyed though the utterly mesmeric power of the human voice.