Comparatively speaking, I haven't been waiting for this LP all that long. A lot of people got hip to the Stitches' inherent brilliance on early singles like "Sixteen" and "Two New Cuts," snatching up each of the band's subsequent singles and EPs like the pennies from heaven that they were. In contrast, I first heard the Stitches on their split with Le Shok that came out in late 2000, but despite the fact that I didn't grow up with the band, I've still feverishly anticipated each new Stitches record since.
No matter when you got into this band, though, hearing their records as they come out is something really special. Most underground punk bands seem to come out of nowhere and disappear again as quickly as they came; as a consequence, it's really difficult to catch a band at the beginning of an upswing when each new record totally and completely blows away the last. Nowadays good bands work quickly toward one brilliant release then peter out amid hazes of (alternately) bad pop or bad metal, great bands maintain a comfortable stasis and legendary bands reinvent themselves with every release with some good results and some not-so-good.
However, the Stitches' bulging discography fits into none of these generic trajectories. They are one of those bands who get better and better with every release, to the point that each new addition to their catalog makes the previous one totally obsolete. As brilliant as I thought 8x12 was, the split with Le Shok blew it completely out of the water. As great as the one track on that record ("Cars of Today," which appears here in a newly-recorded version) was, Four More Songs from the Stitches pushed it permanently off the turntable. And despite all the times I wondered to myself how the hell this band could build upon the brilliance of that EP, Twelve Imaginary Inches does just that, simultaneously expanding aggressively on the band's sound and honing their trademark short punk blasts into three-minute pop songs that would totally saturate the radio in a perfect world.
First there are the songs on Twelve Imaginary Inches that you already know. "Cars of Today" has been totally re-recorded and augmented with a liberal splash of keyboards throughout the track. Don't worry, that classic stop/start riff is preserved in all its glory, but toward the end the song becomes something completely different from the original version, descending into a fuzzy mess of distorted keyboards and guitars that coalesce into an orgy of white noise. "Brains on Vacation" and "Pick Me Up" are newly-re-recorded holdovers from the Four More Songs EP that don't differ all that much from their ancestors, while "Automatic" and "Electroshock Carol" appear in the same versions as the single that surfaced last month on TKO and Vinyl Dog.
That leaves seven totally new songs, most of which find the Stitches reconciling their earlier blasts of pop punk with their more recent riff-rock leanings (the exception is the album-closing "Kids Go Wild," which is a chunky slab of Dolls-style punk that is sort of like a companion piece to "Pick Me Up"). "I Don't Know" has an incredible chorus that has that cool Dickies/Adicts fun house vibe, "Kings of Camden" introduces traditional surf guitar into the Stitches' already eclectic mix of styles and "Better Looks (When You Were Dead)," "2 O'Clock Shakedown" and "Heartache" come of like slightly less manic, better-written versions of the manic punk that appeared on 8x12. However, my personal favorite new song is "Foreign Currency," whose classic simple guitar lead will probably be copied in a hundred new songs in 2003.
Though the new tracks are largely of a piece, when combined with the extremely varied older material, Twelve Imaginary Inches adds up to the kind of album lover's album that the punk scene only enjoys once or twice a year at best. Like classic punk records from London Calling to Damaged and back, one minute you're pumping your fist to a stadium-ready anthem, the next you're pushing the limits of speed and adrenaline and the next you're lost in a psychedelic world of Beefheartian weirdness. Though each song on the LP is brilliant in and of itself, every minute of Twelve Imaginary Inches works toward the same semblance of balance, beauty and satisfaction as a Renaissance painting. Put quite simply, Twelve Imaginary Inches is the punk album of the year and if you aren't listening to it you're missing out.
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