White Wives Happeners

Review: White Wives – Happeners (2011)

When two dudes from Anti-Flag partner with some other dudes from (relatively) under-the-radar acts (Dandelion Snow and American Armada) to create a concept album with heavy allusions to 1960’s anarchist movements and Eastern philosophy, it’s safe to say the result will most likely be a pretentious, poorly-written thesis statement for the Berklee School of Music.  However, as much I would love to berate this prog-rock hubris, the album is just too…damn…good.  Buy it.

The music stands alone, really.  To avoid the banal associations attached to pop-punk, they bathe anything close to it in a warm sonic halo, striving for a smooth, open-room sound; Even as a digital recording, it sounds like vinyl.  Although the album is impeccably mixed and produced, it feels natural and unafraid to explore with tone (the “Kerplunk” guitar sound on “Grow So Wild & Free”, for example).  In an overly-compressed world, instrumental personality and precision is often lost; not here.  The album embodies a beautiful conflict between the forces of folk and punk, spiraling into an agonizing orgasm of rock n’ roll.  A song like “Sky Started Crying,” rescues the marching hymn from stadium punk, relegating the distorted guitars to a textural role, leaving the classic folk instruments to lead the way.  “Paper Chaser” juxtaposes avante-garde noise with straight-forward punk and metal, accented by a genius sense for textural dynamics.  I would love to go through this entire album, spewing out playful labels for the sound, but honestly, I can’t do it justice.  As a general rule for the sound of the album, think of Bon IverThe Replacements (when angry), and a superb pop-songwriting sensibility.

Its one flaw: “Like a Runaway Slave.” No matter how bombastic a rock opera you write, the lyrics, “This way of living was so beautiful/Where no one knows my name/Where nothing stays the same,” should never be set to an anthemic chorus (especially when the rest of the song is so…damn…good).

Now comes the tough part.  For most listeners, allusions to political and philosophical texts in the lyrical content of a rock record ranks high on the bullshit scale.  It begs the question, however: Why does this turn people off?  Do they prefer their rock stars to be either hyper-emotional or stupid when writing lyrics? Should rockers with intellectual interests feel free to include allusions to pretentious fare? Yes.

The oldest source for rock n’ roll lyrics is writing about being in a band.  It’s a lifestyle for which every confused middle-class white kid yearns.  Herein lies the genius of the album: The allusions (in this reviewers opinion) operate as a means of reflection on “being in a band.”  While the song, “Hungry Ghosts[1],” could refer to a grander feeling of nostalgia amongst the global populace, yearning for a pre-nuclear world, the unquenchable thirst for gratification is a key selling point for going on tour.  The song, “Spinning Wheels,” may suggest an endless cycle or repetition in society (perhaps even in reference to the Wheel of Life, which the Hungry Ghosts descend from), but can also double as a simple feeling of ennui after a long tour (also found in “Another City for a New Weekend”).  “Hallelujah, I’m Mourning” implies a loss of individuality, directing attention towards the Stanford Prison Project, but also recognizes the disillusionment a more mature artist can feel towards his earlier works (in Chris #2’s case, perhaps the simplicity of pop-punk).  In literary tone and content, the album most resembles The Who’s “Quadrophenia,” which details a similar tale of self-discovery grounded in the “we-write-about-being-in-a-band” paradigm.

The gestalt of the album is a plea for cognition, for global citizens to make an effort, as the White Wives put it, to “define [their] own truths,” in the tradition of the Situationists[2].  Embrace the musical moment. See what it means for you. Of course, this means you shouldn’t care what I have to say about it. Still…buy the damn album.  If Adele can get a #1, White Wives may have a chance.

For fans of: Bon IverRobert FrancisRilo Kiley, the ‘70’s.

Rating: 9.2/10

[1] The Hungry Ghosts are probably the most vividly drawn metaphors in the Wheel of Life. Phantomlike creatures with withered limbs, grossly bloated bellies, and long thin necks, the Hungry Ghosts in many ways represent a fusion of rage and desire. Tormented by unfulfilled cravings and insatiably demanding of impossible satisfactions, the Hungry Ghosts are searching for gratification for old unfulfilled needs whose time has passed. They are beings who have uncovered a terrible emptiness within themselves, who cannot see the impossibility of correcting something that has already happened. Their ghostlike state represents their attachment to the past. (Mark Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker)

[2] Dutch Anarchist group from the 1960’s.

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