“Folk-punk” doesn’t have to be a dirty phrase. Even “anarcho folk-punk” (no matter how many out-of-tune acoustic guitars, bad parodies of “Baby, I’m an Anarchist” or strong odors it evokes) shouldn’t automatically gain a listener’s ire. I used to be one of the naysayers, but Mischief Brew reminded me of what sparked my interest in the genre. Thankfully, their songs come across more as a Crassed-out American Billy Bragg with a less cheesy sense of humor, than as aping any one of today’s influential political acoustic guitar-wielders.
Mischief Brew consists chiefly of Erik Petersen, as he writes all the songs and usually tours alone. The records often credited with launching him into the punk public eye, the EP Bakenal and a split LP with Robert Blake, chiefly feature the sonic contributions of Petersen. A friend pops up every now and then to assist with some makeshift percussion or strum a mandolin, but it wasn’t until the debut full-length, 2005’s Smash the Windows, that Mischief Brew was ever an electrified, intense full band. Petersen’s technically impressive songs make for an engaging listen, but often seem out of place in this context; a good example is how a re-recording of one of the strongest songs from Bakenal went from anthemic to almost comical due to the bouncy bassline.
If nothing else can be said for it then, 2006’s Songs from Under the Sink is a strange sophomore album. It can be called a return to form in that the vast majority of the musical burden falls upon the metaphorical shoulders of Petersen’s lone acoustic guitar. However, as Petersen remarks in the liner notes, it is “a collection of [songs]…written from 1997 - 2002.” So all of the second full-length was written well before the first full-length. This sheds light on why Petersen’s guitar virtuosity seems scaled back from Windows, and also accounts for the lack of stylistic tendencies that his more recent songwriting has displayed (specifically the pirate punk swagger of certain songs).
Songs from Under the Sink begins with Petersen’s statement of intent, “Thanks, Bastards!”. This song is among one of the best that he’s penned; the cheery staccato guitar strumming is instantly memorable as he thanks various authority figures (police, mayors, and the like) for driving him to political radicalism; "." Some sparse piano work compliments the song nicely.
The main problems with recording an album of songs you wrote before you hit your songwriting prime quickly make themselves apparent, however. For the most part, the ragers are not quite as incendiary as they could be, and the ballads are not as emotionally gripping as they could be. In spite of some clever turns of phrase in both, these problems are clear in “Tell Me a Story” and “A Rebel’s Romance,” respectively. I also feel like the razor-sharp wit displayed on many of Brew’s finest concoctions has yet to develop on these songs, as some of the choruses (and even full songs) just end up annoying me.
Petersen displays his ability to switch from heartfelt, sweet singing to a demon-possessed growl prominently on the laid-back “Save a City,” an ode to gentrification and those who live “in a part [of the city] where the tourists won’t tread.” The song gets louder and he sounds angrier, eventually culminating in the snarl-along thrice-repeated shout of “fuck the city, burn it down!”. Powerful stuff.
The drums-and-electric-guitars sound makes a few appearances here, but most notable is perhaps “All Our Comrades,” an ode to unity. “Gratitude and Thanks” is Petersen’s tribute to the activists that came in preceding generations. However, what may be the album’s most powerful moment is its penultimate song, “How Did I Get Out Alive?”. It begins with sparse guitar and Petersen lamenting the conformity and forced obedience of early school years; “we all tied yellow ribbons 'round necks.” The chords sound dark and wistful, and his vocals and words are searching. However, as the song ends, his penchant for sing-alongs comes out again and he reassuringly proclaims that “I ain’t no saint sent down to save you. If you struggle and fight, you just may get out too.”
The record should end there. Instead Petersen and company stagger through an awkward rendition of “Midnight Special” by Leadbelly. It basically sums up the album better than any review can; Petersen needed to be slightly more selective and is less effective when he is hokey or relying on other people’s words. I eagerly await the day he records a stripped down album of songs he’s recently written (it's strange that neither full-length nearly captures what it's like to see a Mischief Brew show), but until then, make sure you get the compact disc of Songs and skip the more trying songs.