PENNYWISE: From the Ashes: CD/DVD

I won’t deny my past. The year was 1991. I’d been in college a couple years. Then, as now, I was poor. At the time, in Flagstaff, Arizona, the cheapest way I could sample new music was the used cassette bin at an independent record store. They were three-buck gambles. Pennywise’s self-titled made it through some rough winters and the roulette of putting a cassette into the Kraco tape-eating machine. I played that tape multiple hundreds of times. It was one of those auto-repeat players. On the inside cover illustration, one of the members looked like wrestler Steven Nash (long hair, goatee, sunglasses) and another guy had “freestyle skater” hair (the feathery hair-blower swoop). I was still a rabid Bad Religion devotee, and Pennywise had the melodic, tight, muscular punk down to a tee. It was seamless and tough, like a ball bearing. It was perfect for driving and wishing harm on the entire hippie race. I was, largely, in a musical vacuum. To this day, I don’t have cable TV, don’t know much about the alignment of snowboard companies and extreme sports to whatever music they’re pumping. There was no good radio station for hundreds of miles. When I moved to LA in ’96, I got the chance to see Pennywise a couple of times and interviewed them twice. They were very nice, but, man, their fans, by and large, were almost as big of dicks as NOFX’s fans. Meaty dudes with sexual/aggression issues and backward baseball caps punched and pulled one another’s clothes off, circling in an ever-more-sweaty bliss of dirt and sweat. It was like watching a movie where you like the soundtrack but it didn’t equate to what you’re seeing. I had such different ideas in my brain when I played their tape, window down, through the forest, on roads where I wouldn’t pass another car for at least an hour. Not one to hate a band by who they attract, I’d still pick up their releases, one after another. Partially, it was nostalgia. Partially, I really liked them. Enter From the Ashes. In the past twelve years, Pennywise has gotten more politically savvy and tighter as a unit. They’ve always been a little bit more than pro – and thank equipment manufacturers frequently. Each album is sonically a little better than the previous. And although I enjoy parts of this album, I can’t help but feel that they’re painting themselves into an ever-contracting corner. Sure, all of the elements they’ve help define in previous albums are there, but the punk rock elements in their songs sound like they’ve been in captivity for too long. Their musical beast is no longer feral. It’s been caged in and trained to a form of Pennywise-ical musical perfection. I think that’s their intention. (The DVD spends some time in showing the great pains they go through in recording an album.) But in doing so, for me, Pennywise has become more and more devoid of snarl, dirt, grit, and the unexpected explosions that I really enjoy in current bands. They want, and make, clean, proficient punk. I want dirty punk that leaves a rash and an infection. Ironically, their mostly pop songs, like “Yesterday,” with a piano interlude, become their strongest efforts for me, because it stretches them, if even a little bit.

 –todd (Epitaph)