“Whenever I go to a show, it always feels like I've been time-warped back to the 11th grade.”
– Bomb the Music Industry!, “Happy Anterrabae Day!!!”
“I feel like a pedophile just standing here,” says the Sneetch, my former roommate and friend of three years. He’s the biggest Bomb the Music Industry! fan I know, including people on the East Coast, and we both feel pretty awkward sipping Blatz in a room full of children. The otherwise lovely Beat Kitchen smells like a roomful of people who haven’t discovered deodorant yet...which, uh, it is. I spent the first several minutes of Shortstop from Tokyo’s set drinking at the bar with the Sneetch. Now I’m balls deep in a Reel Big Fish ripoff set, I have to piss, and it’s still light out. Punk rock, dude.
Shortstop from Toyko sucks. I don’t normally condemn a band outright like that. But when you play straight-up third wave '90s ska without a shred of originality, mixed poorly, with the bass turned up fourfold, you suck. You bring nothing to the table. Cut it out.
The Sidekicks are visibly much younger than the ska band. They aren't even of drinking age, which doesn't aid my general feeling of self-conscious creepiness. But they are excellent. They echo Ted Leo and the Pharmacists at that band’s brightest, most energetic moments, as every song could land on a more angst-ridden and testosterone-fueled Shake the Sheets. And they can pull off harmonies.
The bassist stands perpendicular to the crowd, watching the well-bearded lefty drummer like a young John Paul Jones. They make no mistakes. Despite some wildly inappropriate moshing from the young audience, it’s the most impressive set I've seen in a long time. The Sidekicks could be headlining arenas in a few years, which is made all the more insane when you consider tonight's basement show-hero headliners. See them in a small club while you still can.
There’s a popular meme in the largely teen-dominated world of online self-indulgence called “White People Problems.” The blog consists of old '50s-style advertisements, with pithy captions like “Log off Facebook because it got boring. Log back on two minutes later. Still boring.” It’s occasionally hilarious, but similar to the more clever “Stuff White People Like” in its oddly poignant way of pointing to the narrow scope of privileged whites and their expectations.
Jeff Rosenstock is not the archetypal white boy. (Nor is he pithy—his lyrics rival prosaic songwriters like Craig Finn and John Darnielle, but with a better knack for hooks and cadence.) He is a touring musician who works part-time jobs to pay the bills. But like so-called “white people problems,” Rosenstock’s lyrics portray a man scraping to survive, but almost completely on his own terms, and with an outright refusal to compromise his ideals. While not an everyman in the socioeconomic sense, Rosenstock is the ultimate “what-if?” character of the punk rock world.
What if Ian MacKaye drank 40s? What if someone never stopped giving a shit about punk rock, ska even, no matter how narrow his audience? What if this same person only played all-ages shows, released all his albums for free, and never really made any money off the whole thing? Even as he started to get old, like late 20s old?
That man is Jeff Rosenstock. And for those reasons, he’s built a kind of infallible seat for himself in the world of independent music. Not to say that Rosenstock isn't a polarizing, oft-shit-talked individual, but for those of us who value the bendable principles of DIY, he’s a hero of sorts. And if his largely confessional lyrics are as honest as they sound, his leading role isn't without its share of pain.
Now uncharacteristically settled down in Brooklyn, Rosenstock is clearly focused on his new record, Vacation. He is not necessarily “happy,” and I don’t think he really wants to be. Bomb!’s music is powered by Jeff’s perpetual dissatisfaction, and Vacation might be Rosenstock’s most self-aware record yet. In place of sillier songs like To Leave or Die in Long Island’s “My Beard of Defiance” and “Showerbeers!” are more of what Jeff does best: honesty ad nauseam, almost to the point of self-incrimination.
He’s learned to channel his most confessional lines into hooks: “All the people I love the best / are starting to get frustrated with me being a mess / and the people I hardly know are always impressed.” It lacks metaphor, because he doesn't need it. Lines like “I thought we all wanna die / I thought that was fine,” no matter how morbid, ring true because Jeff’s lyrics have always been this transparent. Rihanna can write a pop hit about bondage, but Rosenstock can write ballsy sing-alongs about borderline alcoholic existential dread. And high school kids learn all the words. Both of those hooks get their rightful sing-alongs tonight, mostly from people too young to relate.
Onstage, Jeff slams water out of a Nalgene. He barely pauses between songs, holding onto the audience’s ample energy for dear life. His band is relentlessly tight, nailing every ridiculous punch-in that makes BtMI!’s records sound impossible to replicate live. The kids know every word, and the pit is relentless. During the excellent encore, “I Don’t Love You Anymore”, stage dives follow each other in rapid succession, with no breaks for air. The Sneetch gets hit in the head five times, and has to bail mid-song. “Next person I see with a Ramones shirt gets his ass kicked,” he says. I can’t breathe.
High-octane bands like Bomb! are tailor-made for cities like Chicago. As bassist John DeDominici says between songs, “You guys on the floor are really playing along tonight. That’s a very, very rare thing.” I find that hard to believe, considering how relaxed and at home the entire band seems. But maybe it’s the love from the audience that gives multi-instrumentalist Matt Keegan the energy to switch among trombone, vocals and keyboard, all in one three-minute song.
Rosenstock has always favored the ugly truth over the feel-good summer hit. On Vacation, like the best of his work, he finds a way to transcend the two. Choruses like “I can’t complain / I've got a bed I can crawl into / I've got a bottle for the pain,” no matter how morbid or hyperbolic, still manage to ring true. And we still can’t help but sing along—the acoustic jam is a powerhouse rocker like the rest of them in concert, morphing depression into celebration as only this band can.
Like white people problems, Jeff’s laments deal almost exclusively with the banal and the mediocre, but he isn't afraid to touch on just how crippling those feelings can be. Boredom and depression, two of his favorite subjects, find themselves magnified and exalted by Rosenstock. A BtMI! show is like the last hour of the party, when almost all the booze is gone and everyone’s drunkenly admitting a world of pent-up insecurity to total strangers.
I've listened to Vacation at least once a day since it dropped, sometimes twice or three times a day. Something about BtMI! records always drive me to wear out the tape, to play them until I've learned all the words and can barely listen to them anymore.
“In April I stared out the window for a fucking month,” sings Jeff on “Felt Just Like Vacation”. In April, I did the same thing. And apparently, so did the bearded, shirtless dude next to me in the pit. We’re screaming along with the LP’s excellent closer as if we’d written it ourselves. Good art makes people do that—its subject is so self-involved that you can’t help but shift all its energy back to yourself. The hero of the story is so real that you become him. “Winter won’t kill me,” he sings at the end of their little 45-minute set, and I’m amazed I didn't lose my voice singing along. Winter in this city could always kill me, or any of us, but I'm convinced it won’t when I’m soaked to the bone and screaming like a 10th grader...next to a 10th grader. Yeesh. (Is this how old dudes are gonna feel when I'm singing along with "Myage" at Riot Fest this fall? I hope so.)
In a plummeting industry, Rosenstock has the right idea—avoid as much corporate interference as possible, and lyrically gut myself onstage in front of children every night. The generation gap between Jeff and his fans is more visible than ever, but he's becoming a kind of educator for the next wave of independent musicians and label-owners. He's like a cool English teacher, but one you could actually get drunk and hang out with.
Why do people love inexplicably popular shit like Odd Future? Because they feel like they know them. I feel like I know Jeff Rosenstock. And I’m glad he isn't more popular.