Brain Failure's American Dreamer is the sort of punk rock record that's both incredibly fun and sort of ridiculous. Even with the lyrics sheet in front of me I have no idea what anyone's saying, but at this level of energy silly things like lyrics just get in the way anyways. To call Brain Failure the Chinese Rancid really isn't too far from the truth, as that band's influence is all over American Dreamer.
Much has been made of Brain Failure's origins and it's worth repeating. Formed in `95, the band was one of the first to self-release a demo in China. They were a large part of the scene that revolved around Beijing's infamous Scream Club, with frontman Xiao Rong becoming somewhat of a stylistic pioneer for the nascent Chinese punk movement. However, if there are great tales of cultural oppression or state censorship in Brain Failure's past, it's certainly not evident on this record (although, and I digress, many North American reviewers have tried to push this angle and come up grasping at straws). Most bios circulating online claim a relative level of stability and economic prosperity in the PRC created the conditions where a band like Brain Failure could exist, and that's likely closer to the truth.
Brain Failure recorded their second album American Dreamer in Boston under the wing of Dropkick Murphys principal Ken Casey. Musically, this is well-trod territory with shades of Sham 69, Stiff Little Fingers and the multitude that followed them. Xiao's mastered the Tim Armstrong slur and sounds unbelievably similar to the Rancid frontman on tracks like "Stay Free" and "Summer Afternoon." The band instrumentally follows suit with that influence and has peppered American Dreamer with a handful of 3rd wave ska-punk tunes. The upstroke guitar and bouncing bass lines of "Second Hand Pogo," "Such A Dangerous" and "Holy Bullshit" sound like they could have come straight from the summer of 1997. The record struggles from translation issues and the band's stumbling English is distracting at times. In fact, the band seems to hit their stride on tracks that mix English and Mardarin, particularly "Played" and "Human." These songs sound the most comfortable and least derivative of the bunch; the latter in particular sports a very cool rock'n'roll vibe courtesy of guitarist Wang Jian.
Since the international nature of Brain Failure is hard to ignore, the real question here is what American Dreamer represents. Is it the unheard voice of a vast and culturally complex population expressed through the universal language of punk rock? Or is just it a testament to the global popularity and unending influence of the Clash (or maybe more specifically Rancid)? Brain Failure's a lot of fun, but this record is clearly the latter. Furthermore, that begs the question if it's really fair to focus on the band's nationality at all. Should they be expected to represent something profound or novel just because of their origins? If the answer is no and we're choosing to ignore cultural context, then the only logical conclusion here is that Brain Failure plays fun and proficient but highly derivative post-Rancid street punk, and there's a hundred other bands out there doing the exact same thing.
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