Screeching Weasel - Baby Fat, Act 1 (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

Screeching Weasel

Baby Fat, Act 1 (2015)

Recess Records

Baby Fat, Act 1 is the first in an apparent two-part punk rock opera. The story bears much in common with the Italian opera Rigoletto, commonly considered a masterpiece of its kind. I can’t claim to know much about Giuseppi Verdi’s Rigoletto besides that it is about a hunchbacked father and his beautiful daughter, that it involves doomed love, curses and death, and that Ben Weasel heard it on the radio in the midst of a turbulent period of his life, and found enough inspiration from it to create an opera of his very own. Grand ambitions for a man who usually specializes in Ramones-style punk rock, indeed, but with the strength of his convictions and a loyal fan base, Ben Weasel raised enough money on IndieGoGo to see this vision turned into reality. At a robust 27 songs running the gamut of not only punk rock, but several (sometimes awkwardly) intertwining genres, Baby Fat: Act 1 is as epic in scope and ambition as pop punk is likely to ever get.

The album starts off with instrumental intro “Il Tremendo Fantasma (Baby Fat Overture),” sounding like a strange mix of spaghetti western soundtrack and Trans Siberian Orchestra. It’s big and dramatic, and sets the tone for the rest of Baby Fat, Act 1, for better or for worse. This is followed up by “Attention!,” a song in which Blag Dahlia of the Dwarves takes up vocal duties. Blag ostensibly plays the vocal part of protagonist Baby Fat, and his songs reflect what is going on with this character, either internally or externally. Ben Weasel gives voice to antagonist Swank. He is first heard on the third track of the album, “So Long, Mojo,” and it is the first track that sounds even remotely like the Screeching Weasel we’re accustomed to, though a bit more on the Irish-punk side. Other guest vocalists on the album include Kat Spazzy (Spazzys), Roger Lima (Less Than Jake), Todd Congelliere (Toys That Kill and Recess Records labelmaster), Paul Collins (Paul Collins Beat), Andrea Manges (Manges), Suzy Chain and BB Quattro (Suzy and Los Quattro) and Line Dahlmann (The Dahlmanns). It’s a star-studded affair, yet Dahlia is the clear leading man -- in fact, it is surprising how little Ben Weasel sings on his own album.

A few songs into the album, Weasel returns to what he does best -- simple, melodic pop punk. “All Winter Long” is an ultra-poppy sing-along that feels somewhat out of place compared to the songs before it. I suspect this is Ben Weasel’s intention, somehow. The next song, the Congelliere-sung “I’ve Got VD,” is catchy, even if it is about contracting a venereal disease (I don’t think this plot point is from Rigoletto). “Kewpie Doll” is vintage Weasel, and feels very welcome, before the album returns to serving its overstuffed concept.

And this is the issue with Mr. Weasel’s latest creation -- there’s just too much story going on, and not enough quality songwriting to keep the listener invested in it. The immediate, comparable album that springs to mind when listening to Baby Fat, Act 1 is another rock opera with dubious aims towards grandeur (though undoubtedly benefiting from a much higher recording budget): Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown. Within both albums, the ambition of its creators overshadows the actual songs. There are hints of great choruses, interesting verses and memorable melodies, buried under so many unnecessary bells and whistles and theatrics. I imagine that having the lyrics sheet in front of one’s self would help (I do not, and I imagine many listeners will not either), but to the listener left to figure it out for themselves the story feels muddled and unclear, while too many songs come across as filler intended only to advance this muddled and unclear story.

The strongest tracks on the album are the songs that feel more standalone, and there are enough of these sprinkled throughout Baby Fat: Act 1 to keep the album from sinking. These include the Dahlia-led “Things Aren’t So Bad After All,” “Baby Fat’s Got a Girlfriend,” “Poveretta,” the refreshingly energetic “Without Belief,” “Sleeping Beauty” and the somewhat Weezer-ish “Disharmony 2.” That said, there are a handful of stinkers, including the original “Disharmony,” the yawn-inspiring, piano-heavy “Satan Leapt,” and the cheesy-as-all-hell “I’m a Lonesome Wolf,” a song which Weasel sings, and in the process makes clear why he doesn’t sing more on his own rock opera -- his voice just isn’t very well-suited for such melodramatic music. All the while, producer Mike Kennerty does what he can with the material to render it big and vibrant. Everything sounds great from a production standpoint, if at some points a little overdone.

When all's said and done, will Baby Fat, Act 1 be considered a triumph of rock n’ roll innovation, or a bloated misstep? It’s hard to imagine many Screeching Weasel fans loving this album front-to-back, and it’s also hard to imagine it earning Mr. Weasel many new fans. Yet, there are strong tracks and ideas within, and they are worth a listen. The fact that there is to be an Act 2 is daunting, however, as it indicates that the Baby Fat tale very well may be over 50 songs long. In that regard, Baby Fat already feels morbidly obese.