Graded on a Curve: Pissed Jeans, Honeys

Pissed Jeans make loud, nasty, muscular rock music, and unlike most bands in their chosen corner of the field, they’re ripening with age. As evidence, their latest record Honeys is also their best. Those with a predilection for noise-rock have likely already tapped into the band’s worthwhile discography, but any fans of the form that have somehow missed or deliberately avoided Pissed Jeans thus far should get hip quick, for not only have they gotten better, they’ve also grown into one of the best groups in their style’s abrasive history.

Folks discovering Pissed Jeans through their new LP Honeys should resist summarizing the clamorous Pennsylvanian four-piece’s brand of bruising late-‘80s/early-‘90s-style post-hardcore/noise-rock as a mere attempt at throwback from some amped-up Johnny-come-latelies. To the contrary, these gents are now four albums deep in a decade-long career (not the word really, since apparently they all hold office jobs as their primary means of income) that’s landed them a fruitful association with the Sub Pop label.

The first recorded evidence of Pissed Jeans was a demo cassette from 2003, but the ball really got rolling with the “Throbbing Organ” b/w “Night Minutes” 7-inch from the following year. It was pressed-up in a 1,000 copy run by Parts Unknown, the same label also waxing the band’s ’05 long-playing debut Shallow. Since then they’ve found a home with Sub Pop, producing two more albums, ‘07’s Hope for Men and ‘09’s King of Jeans, and a pair of 7-inches.

Turn back the clock a decade or so from Pissed Jeans’ beginnings and you’ll find no shortage of bands specializing in a similar sort of racket. The post-HC/noise-rock soiree was still in full swing, documented most prolifically by imprints like Touch and Go, Amphetamine Reptile, and Sympathy for the Record Industry, less so by little labels that could such as Treehouse, Noiseville, Skin Graft, and Circuit.

By ’93 the fallout from the Grunge-explosion was well underway, and much of the noise-rock scene defined itself in opposition to that whole state of affairs. This didn’t stop a bunch of noisy units from getting swept-up in the major label signing frenzy of the period, and one of the biggest, Chicago’s The Jesus Lizard, ended up leaving Touch and Go for two releases on Capitol.

Pissed Jeans are often compared to The Jesus Lizard. In one sense this is fair since Jeans’ vocalist Matt Korvette, like the Lizard’s David Yow, has left many a microphone drenched in agitated spittle. Furthermore, both groups specialize in highly-developed brands of antagonistic anti-subtlety. On the other hand the comparison seems a bit thin through overuse; while they’re solid kin in the same sub-genre, in the end Pissed Jeans don’t sound very much like The Jesus Lizard, partly because the bands have distinct relationships with the hardcore music that spawned them.

This relates to the other name that frequently appears in articles/reviews/blurbs on Pissed Jeans, that being Black Flag. Again this is understandable to a certain extent, mainly due to how the Jeans alternately blast forward and slow things down in a manner quite similar to loads of ‘80s-era u-ground acts, groups that were getting downright fatigued by the rules and regs of hardcore. In so doing, many of those bands were reacting specifically to the precedent set by post-Damaged Black Flag (or Flipper, yet another name linked to the sound of Pissed Jeans).

Plus, the band that released Shallow was very much an extension of a thriving u-ground hardcore scene, this circumstance documented in a Blastitude magazine article that’s linked through Pissed Jeans’ website. If ‘80s HC gets nearly all of the glory, kids have continued to mosh it up right to this very moment, and they prefer to do it in front of bands of their peers.

However, Pissed Jeans weren’t really a reaction against later-generation HC orthodoxy, but rather just a means of expression from some unorthodox guys. This situation makes the additional comparisons to ‘80s groups like San Fran’s Fang, Dallas’ Stickmen with Rayguns (featuring the late anti-crooner Bobby Soxx), and St. Louis’ highly divisive Drunks with Guns perhaps the most appropriate connections related to Pissed Jeans’ sound.

And if they’re also comparable to the formidable glut of early-‘90s noise-rock action, they don’t recall any one band from within the parameters of all that din (certainly not The Jesus Lizard, again), and the fact that far fewer bands are practicing this blatantly rock-centric style since Pissed Jeans’ first commenced in throwing down has greatly assisted them in standing out from the crowd.

Of course the stature provided by being on Sub Pop helps as well. But as likeable and largely successful as the group’s long-players have been up to this point, none have really connected with the precise power of Honeys. To elaborate, all of their previous LPs have started strong and contained a high number of fine moments, but they were also hindered a bit by an inverse of the maxim less is more. There was nothing wrong with the songs individually, but as a whole they delivered a sum that somehow lessened the band’s overall impact.

That’s not the case here. Opener “Bathroom Laughter” barrels forward with an explosiveness that’s born from a combination of veteran musicianship and a defiant refusal to behave in a fashion that’s even vaguely mature. You know that giddy rush that comes from mclusky’s “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues” ? Sure you do. Well, “Bathroom Laughter” has just this sort of quality going for it, though instead of the jackhammer dynamics and foulmouthed theatrics of the mclusky tune, it connects more like a nitro-powered Sherman tank leveling a picturesque subdivision.

Drummer Sean McGuiness simply throttles his kit, guitarist Bradley Fry peppers his mauling scorch with brief squeals of anguished atonalism, and bassist Randy Huth adds urgency and crucial weight. Along the way Korvette rants like an incensed manic; it’s fitting that his most employed tactic in the song is to transform guttural emoting into a chorus of sorts.

The tempo of “Bathroom Laughter” is torridly fast (if never out of the band’s control), but the following track “Chain Worker” examines familiar territory for Pissed Jeans, that being the slow. This is part of the reason they get compared to Flipper, though in this case it’s Flipper indulging in contempo doom metal (apropos, since Pissed Jeans have expressed admiration for Cali-doomsters Goatsnake), though a reference to those San Fran anti-punks can be avoided entirely by describing “Chain Worker” as simply sounding like an extremely bent Killdozer.

Anybody with fond memories of that Wisconsin band will likely find Pissed Jeans to be of interest. Folks that were less enthusiastic about noise-rock in its heyday probably shouldn’t bother getting acquainted with the group. Noise-rock was always a boldly take it or leave it proposition (a stance that lingered from the birth of hardcore), and Pissed Jeans personify that attitude on Honeys. And while they’ve never been a subpar outfit, this is their first record that really connects as being equal to the peaks of the post-HC/noise-rock days of yore.

They haven’t achieved this through hybridization or extension, but instead by simply doing their thing better than they have in the past. And in the end it’s basically just one thing; yes, they vary the velocity, moving from fast to slow to mid-tempo better than they ever have before, but it’s still noise-rock through and through. And yes, the monotone vocal inflection and throbbing musical accompaniment of “Cafeteria Food” stands out from the rest of Honeys, but not anymore than say Big Black covering Kraftwerk did back in the day.

Some will call this a lack of progression or refinement, and when coupled with the fact that contempo bands choosing to fully commit to the rock impulse sans irony are apparently somewhat uncool at the moment, Pissed Jeans become just as polarizing as those Touch and Go and Am-Rep groups that precede them. But the truth is that these guys have progressed, with their fourth LP being the first one to feel like it’s over too quickly. And after well over a dozen listens this assessment is secure.

To be frank, most noise-rock bands never managed a fourth album without seriously stinking up the joint. The fact that Pissed Jeans are this good a decade into their existence suggests that the endless comparisons to prior bands should cease, for with Honeys some of those supposed influences are going to take a back seat.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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