What does it mean to live in the Midwest, to grow up in a small, dead-end town overshadowed by a nearby metropolis? Appleton, Wisconsin's Tenement seem to provide an answer on Napalm Dream, which embodies a particular Midwest sound while creating its own particular contribution to the cultural landscape/wasteland of Wisconsin and similar areas. Hüsker Dü and the Replacements are the immediate sonic influences, but while Tenement pay tribute to each of their unique sounds, they end up sounding like neither. Instead, they combine the twang of the Mats with the early crunch-and-solo of Dinosaur Jr. and a subtle nod to the most tender Descendents ballads.
The packaging further develops Napalm Dream into a cohesive and unique aesthetic. Rather than using Photoshop, Tenement have a fetish for a distinctive collage art, which uses cutouts from the '50s and '60s to represent suburban and small-town, middle-class aspirations and (obviously) the American Dream, which as it turns out may be more toxic and complicated than thought at the time. The hopeful expressions of the women, men and children on the sleeve contrast with the empty stares of guitarist/drummer/vocalist Amos Pitsch and bassist Jesse Ponkamo on the insert.
The A side of the record begins with “Stupid Werld”, which derides the (you guessed it) stupid world, backed with a harmony of “ahh"s and ample feedback. But as the song breaks down into a chunky bassline, more feedback, and a simple punk beat, the unique creation of Tenement shines. “All these cowards in this room / staring blankly at their shoes / I wish that there was more I could say to you” sounds like a direct address to the punk scene while simultaneously highlighting the band’s only minor contributions. The song then punches into its cathartic group-vocals outro: “living in a napalm dream,” echoed by striking female vocals.
The record continues with the upbeat “Simple Things,” as well as fan favorite “Earwig” and “City Bus #30”, which many will recognize from the split 7” with Used Kids and the False Teeth 7”, respectively. Interspersed are quieter and shorter lo-fi tunes like “Dreaming out Loud” and “When Time Caught Up”, which provide an offbeat contrast to the incredible pop tunes.
The B side begins with the infectious “Rock Eating People” and solo-laden “Blammo”, but the last three songs are by far the highlight of this record. “Skyscraper” contains the incredible chorus “I guess I’ll see you around / somewhere in the guts of this stupid old town,” perfectly embodying the entrapping ability of the digestive tract of middle America. “Death in the Family” slows the pace a bit, but contains some innovative guitar work involving de/re-tuning mid-solo. Closer “Schadenfreude” begins with a depressing spoken-word piece, again referencing the failure of reality in the face of our dreams. “Schadenfreude” comes out of nowhere with a classic hardcore homage written and sung by Jesse, anchored by a concise “Fuck with me? / Fuck you.” But the song dissolves in a totally unexpected way, into a bass groove with backing female vocals, this time with some sparse piano chords. With a giant breath and a rattle of drums and items dropped on the floor, the song seems to head towards another giant chorus or solo. But instead it leaves only silence and the desire to flip over the record and start again.
The reason Napalm Dream succeeds where similar albums fail is because it feels complete, like effort was put into the lyrics, images, and music in ways that go beyond the half-assed pop-punk “beer and girls” that has become a (beloved) standard. In some ways, the record makes a connection between the ways in which punk itself has come to reflect the failings of the American Dream and our attempts to live with this “stupid world.” Yet the tone is not quite critical of either punk or nostalgic pretensions; rather, Napalm Dream seems to reference these aspirations in a way that brings out their tensions, contradictions and impossibility, all reinforced by deft and powerful songwriting.
SP and Hang Up co-released the CD version.