To err is human; to err constantly is to be a rock critic. Take me: over the course of my long career writing for such esteemed publications as Man Mustache Monthly, Dodge Pacer Owner Magazine, and Lawnmower Injury Digest I’ve expressed more boneheaded opinions than a ship full of halfwits.
There was, for instance, the review I wrote that began, “I have seen the future of rock’n’roll, and its name is Kajagoogoo.” Then there was my take on The Boss (“No way a guy named Bruce ever makes it in the rock business.”) Finally, there was the time I called John Oates “the brains, and the mustache, behind Hall and Oates.” In short, I’ve gotten it wrong more often than your average Fox News commentator.
Which brings us to Philadelphia noise rockers Pissed Jeans, who played the Black Cat on April 12. All I had to do was hear their name–let me amend that: smell their name–and I immediately wrote Pissed Jeans off as yet another band of scuzzball raunch’n’rollers taking the low, lewd road to notoriety with song titles like “Wrong Nipple” and “I’ve Got a Turd With Your Face on It.” But this time out I decided to try something I’m surprised no rock critic has ever tried before–namely, listening to the band before pronouncing judgment upon it. As it turns out, it makes a big difference. In the case of Pissed Jeans, their name may reek of contrived controversy, to say nothing of urine, but Pissed Jeans aren’t out to Épatez la bourgeoisie. Instead, they’re something far more interesting; namely, noise rock’s poet laureates of the mundane.
Since Pissed Jeans 2005 debut Shallow, vocalist Matt Korvette has sung about such humdrum subjects as enjoying ice cream but feeling kinda guilty about it, failing to get dates over the Internet, worrying about losing his hair, wishing his boss would die, wondering how it his car has developed a new noise even though he just got it back from the shop, feeling let down by R-rated movies, knowing he could do 20 push ups if he were only willing to try, wishing he were a people person, avoiding doctors as a form of health plan, having a thing for boring girls and Christian Louboutin shoes, and wondering why his allergies last all-year round, for Christ’s sake. Then there’s the great “I’m Sick.” The title leads one to expect a confession of moral degradation ala G.G. Allin or Marilyn Manson; instead Korvette whines, “I didn’t get any sleep last night/Cuz I’m sick/I’m sick I’m sick/I’m dehydrated/I’ve got diarrhea/I can’t keep my food down/My sinuses are clogged/I’m sick! I’m sick.” At long last, I bring you diarrhea rock.
Musically, Pissed Jeans–in addition to Korvette they’re Bradley Fry on guitar, Randy Huth on bass, and Sean McGuinness on drums–play a pummeling species of feedback-drenched, white-noise-laden hardcore that is every bit as exciting as their lyrics are banal. And over it all the fantastically elastic-voiced Korvette sings, shouts, bellows, moans, laughs, cries, mutters, speaks in a monotone, and coughs, twisting words into amazing knots–you have to hear what he does to “idiot”–or stretching them out to absurd lengths. Korvette–check out his bravura performance in “Scrapbooking” if you want proof–may well be the most idiosyncratic singer to come our way since U.S. Maple’s Al Johnson, and his amazing vocal mannerisms provide the perfect counterpoint to Pissed Jeans’ musical caterwaul.
Korvette once told an interviewer, “Mainly we just wanted to bludgeon the listener with monotonous droning rock music that just sucks the energy out of you, the musical equivalent to watching a toilet flush.” I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Pissed Jeans have badly missed the bowl. While there a few flushing toilets in the band’s repertoire–“My Bed,” “Request for Masseuse,” and the Killdozer-like “Chain Worker” come to mind–Pissed Jeans are anything but a drone rock outfit like Flipper or early No Trend, or a deliberate exercise in monotony like the Swans. Instead, their music runs the gamut from full-fledged hardcore (“Bathroom Laughter,” “Jesii Part 2”) to plodding noise rock (“People Person,” “Settle”) to propulsive and catchy drone rock (“Boring Girls”) to forays into pure white noise (“Something About Mrs. Johnson,” “Wachovia.”) Throw in lots of feedback-drenched midtempo numbers (“Closet Marine,” “Caught Licking Leather”) and a few songs that defy easy categorization (“Scrapbooking,” “The Jogger”) and what you’ve got is a band every bit as electrifying as the time I decided to demonstrate to my friends that there is no risk whatsoever in pissing on an electric fence.
All of which brings us to Pissed Jeans’ show at the Black Cat. Unfortunately I missed the opening act due to an unexpected run-in with a guy who wanted to debate my declaration, in the December 1982 edition of Denim Ponytail, of Men Without Hats as “the new Beatles.” I’m afraid things got rather heated–arguments about “The Safety Dance” always do–and one black eye later I arrived just in time for Pissed Jeans’ set.
And I’m sorry to report I left with mixed feelings. Which is odd, because Pissed Jeans played some of the most exciting hardcore I’ve heard in eons. My misgivings were two-fold: first, for a noise rock band, Pissed Jeans wasn’t very noisy, at least until the show’s end. Second, and far more disappointing so far as I was concerned, Korvette seemed to have left most of his amazing vocal contortions back at the studio. His vocals were good, but far from amazing, offering a perfect demonstration of what can be lost in the transition from recording to live performance. And while his energetic and utterly deadpan stage schtick was entertaining, he still came off–at least to me–as a cut-rate Shannon Selberg.
The band opened with the explosive “Dream Smotherer,” which caused a particularly perky mosh pit to materialize, then followed it with a sped-up “Half-Idiot” and the blatant Cows rip, “Vain in Costume.” (Nothing wrong with ripping off Cows; Pissed Jeans do it on “Male Gaze” too. If you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from the best.) Next up was the ferociously fast “Health Plan” followed by “She Is Science Fiction,” another midtempo number revved up for the live show. At song’s end Korvette gravely announced, “The Black Cat has firm rules against stage diving and crowd surfing. Pissed Jeans firmly believes in these rules… but we think we’ve found a loophole. Please feel free to stage surf and crowd dive.” At which point the band went into the V2-fast “Romanticize Me,” which featured some frenetic guitar by Fry over which Korvette sang, “You wish that I’d whisper that I love you/Just imagine it’s there in everything I am/Take all my faults and twist them in your head/Til I look like a sweet and thoughtful man.”
The bludgeoning and midtempo “Pleasure Race” was followed by “Teenage Adult,” which featured a wonderfully fuzzed-up bass by Huth, while “Bathroom Laughter” opened with more fuzz bass and included some great squealing feedback from Fry, not to mention lots of tortured “blaaaaaahs!” from Korvette. Thereupon followed the slow, throbbing “Cafeteria Food,” after which Korvette announced they were playing their final number. This led one disgruntled fan–the band’s set was exceedingly short–to spray Korvette with water. Korvette responded with false hurt, “All I want to do is sing to you. All I want to do is sing a song of love to you.” Which turned out to be the feral “False Jesii Part 2,” which shifted in media res from furious hardcore into a prolonged bout of white noise.
Encores are generally anti-climactic; not so with Pissed Jeans. In fact, I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it. When Pissed Jeans returned Korvette strapped on a guitar and proceeded to hammer out the introduction to “Human Upskirt.” And then went on to play some of the most fractured guitar I’ve ever heard, heavy in white noise and feedback, even letting the audience take turns strumming the guitar before abruptly letting it drop, leaving McGuinness to pound out the beat while the guitar continued to squeal with white noise. It was noise rock primitivism at its finest, and what I’d been waiting to hear all night.
And “Human Upskirt” was nothing compared to “Boring Girls,” which turned into an amazing demonstration of audience participation. First a guy in a black hat and beard was invited on stage to sing, which he did poorly but with gusto. Then Fry handed over his guitar to a guy in a white shirt, who commenced to not only play the damn thing but to bust a couple of pretty natty rock star moves while he was at it. Finally Huth turned over his bass to a crowd member, and what followed was–and I really hate to say this–as fine a slab of noise rock as Pissed Jeans played all night. It may not have been the version of “Boring Girls”–my favorite Pissed Jeans song–that I’d come to hear, but it was something more heartwarming by far; namely, a goodwill attempt by Pissed Jeans to let the audience be the star, at least for a song.
To sum up, Pissed Jeans may have put on the best live show I ever found disappointing. It was a lot like the time I went to see Mouth and MacNeal, and Mouth had a mouth like anybody else’s. I fully expected Mouth to have a bigger mouth, but as it turned out MacNeal actually had the bigger mouth, and I was so disgruntled by this fact that I promptly went home, wrote a disparaging review, and submitted it to Trout and Shoes Monthly.