Ya know, I don’t like Ben Weasel anymore. It’s not because he’s punk rock’s most renowned asshole -- that’s actually my favorite thing about the guy -- it’s because, like many other die-hard Weasel Heads, we’re still pissed that he won’t reform Screeching Weasel and even more pissed that we never got to see them live. There’s definitely a love/hate thing we as fans have with Ben and his old band, but I argue that those feelings speak to the band’s relevance. Snobs can discount SW all they want, but they always engaged the listener and the punk scene.
Well, pay no mind to my fanboy gripes. As a reviewer it’s my duty to approach this as an unbiased referee, and that job has been made especially easy because These Ones Are Bitter is a fantastic album -- without a doubt, one of the best releases of the year, really. I know I know, it pains me to say…
I attribute the excellence of this new full-length to three things: terrific production, an unprecedented vocal performance from Ben, and (duh) good songs. The man behind the knobs is All-American Reject Mike Kennerty, and it sounds like it too. Not sure how this kid got so good at recording bands (I suspect that he enlisted the help of a talented engineer to get some of these sounds), but this record is bright, has great separation, and the producer got the most out of the performance. I’m not too familiar with AAR, but their contribution to this project should not be overlooked. Props.
We also have Ben Weasel singing better than ever, and that can’t hurt. Chill out kids, his voice still has that distinct sound, just stronger and, unless I’m imagining things, his range has also improved. It’s polished and a little less bratty, but there’s a lot of sweet melodies on this album and his new found vocal prowess makes more sense. I think I read a while back on Ben’s blog that he took singing lessons? I expect any vocalists out there reading this to be asking themselves “Why didn’t I think of that?”
And thirdly, the songs are just really good. Took me long enough to get to the actual music, huh? I suppose if I was forced at spearpoint to liken TOAB to something from the Weasel pantheon I might go with the under-appreciated Bark Like a Dog LP, only because that record saw the band take on some mid-tempo ditties for the first time (think “You Blister My Paint”) and because it was Screeching Weasel’s best produced album up to that point. On this latest release I am hearing a bit of the Muffs (“In a Few Days”), a surprising amount of MxPx (“Got My Number” among others), and an overall vibe that reminds me of Weezer. Again, SW purists need not be alarmed: This stuff is right up your alley. Besides, you’re in your 30s now for fuck’s sake. This record is so accessible it might actually be a nice introduction for those unfamiliar with Screeching Weasel. Imagine you and your Matchbox 20-loving older sister having to go on a road trip. Throw this on and you will both be stoked. Now that she’s opened up a bit to your silly punk rock music, that’s when you hit her with My Brain Hurts, dawg!
So why not a perfect 10? There is some filler on Side B, but it could only be considered filler because there’s so many high points throughout the album. Don’t get me wrong -- it finishes strong down the stretch with songs like “Summer’s Always Gone Too Soon” and my favorite of the bunch, the closer “Only In November.” You’ll notice that there’s multiple references to the seasons, which has been a recurring theme throughout Screeching Weasel’s career. And I may be over-thinking this a bit, but something about the overall package here hints at a concept album. Sort of a “year in the life of Ben Weasel”-type thing starting with a refreshing Spring thaw. But I’m probably getting carried away, so decide for yourself.
Lastly, it bears mentioning that These Ones Are Bitter is a digital-only release with a limited vinyl pressing planned for later in the year. Sure, the handwriting is on the wall, but this decision seems a little puzzling when you consider the audience. I also think Ben Weasel should’ve got a guy named Jughead to play guitar and a guy named Vapid to play bass and called the band something along the lines of Screeching Weasel. A crazy notion that probably would’ve only resulted in double the album sales, BUT HEY, who asked me? And even if I got my way, I’d just complain about the lack of touring anyhow, so I’ll settle for this: another great full-length from the Weasel camp.