Graded on a Curve:
Fall Out Boy,
PAX AM Days

Is there anybody out there over the age of 13 who likes Fall Out Boy? I’ve been mocking them for years for playing low-rent emo (with increasing dance flourishes) at its most commercialized, this without listening to them of course. Sure, I heard “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down,” and it nauseated me, as did songs like “Dance, Dance,” “The Phoenix,” and “A Little Less Sixteen Candles, a Little More ‘Touch Me’.” Call me a hater if you want, but I don’t mind being called a hater when the band in question adheres to a tired and tiresome pop punk template that has annoyed me since I first heard Bad Religion.

But a funny thing happened when I listened to their latest release, PAX AM Days. In short, instead of finding myself nauseous, I found myself actually listening. I was certain (and still am) that this was a symptom of premature senility, but I also had to acknowledge that some of the tracks on the new album lacked the characteristics (three-part harmonies, high cuteness level, paucity of mayhem) that I found so objectionable on their earlier releases. In short, they sounded rougher, tougher, and less out to please, and if they weren’t exactly breaking any new ground they had certainly wandered out of their commercial comfort zone, and that in itself was laudable.

Fall Out Boy was one of the biggest flag wavers of the emo pop explosion of the mid-2000s, and if there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s emo. Setting honest emotions to a pop punk beat is my idea of Hell, and Fall Out Boy rode the emo pop wave to massive success, which just made me hate them more. About the only thing I liked about them was their collaboration on a song (the title track to 2013’s execrable and dance-oriented Save Rock and Roll) with Elton John, and the sad truth is the song isn’t even that good. As Robert Christgau wrote of 2005’s From Under the Cork Tree, “Only their record company would claim that emotional vocals, dramatic dynamics, poppy-punky tempos, and not actually all that catchy tunes add up to ‘their own sound.’” Translation: they were shameless copycats, and not very good copycats at that. Christgau also called the band pretentious, which put them in the same league with another band I’ve always despised, The Killers.

PAX AM Days—which was produced by Ryan Adams—can almost be described as a side project, insofar as the band and Adams deliberately set out to produce a record that sounded nothing like Fall Out Boy, and looked backwards rather than forwards. Noted guitarist Joe Trohman, “Misfits, Black Flag, Descendents, Dag Nasty, anything real late-70s, early-80s punk and hardcore stuff was influential in the creation of the music, and I think even the lyrical content too. That was the inspiration behind the entire session—to emulate the stuff that we grew up on, and the stuff that [Adams] grew up on.” Perhaps the success of the sadly predictable Save Rock and Roll (which went to No. 1) gave them the confidence to go out on a limb for once. Shit, what did they have to lose? So call it a lark or a diversion or just a way to cut loose and kick out the jams for a change, but it works, at least in part. It certainly breaks no new ground, but by Fall Out Boy standards it’s a marvel. I don’t know what their hardcore fans think of it, and I don’t care—I’m just amazed they had the cojones to release the thing in the first place.

Fall Out Boy was formed in 2001 in a suburb of Chicago, where it rolled into that area’s hardcore scene like a Trojan Horse to play a catchy brand of music that is best described as kiddycore. The band’s members include Patrick Stump on vocals and guitar, Pete Wentz on bass, the aforementioned Joe Trohman on guitar, and Andy Hurley on drums. Their sophomore LP From Under the Cork Tree (which I would have entitled Put a Cork In It) turned them into instant (just add watered down) superstars, and the rest is history, which teaches us that a boy band that also appeals to girls has a much better chance of achieving fame than Anal Cunt.

Anyway, onto PAX AM Days, which opens with “We Were Doomed From the Start (The King Is Dead).” The guitars are dissonant, the pace rocketship fast, and there is no confusing this tune with the Fall Out Boy of Save Rock and Roll. They remind me more of Urge Overkill, and the same goes for “The Art of Keeping Up Disappearances,” on which Wentz sounds at long last like an adult and which also races along at a breakneck pace. I dig the guitar solo, and I would actually risk being caught listening to either song. “Hot to the Touch, Cold on the Inside” constitutes an unfortunate compromise, in that you get the annoying harmonies and a pop punk intro, with some hardcore in the middle. The chorus is particularly and egregiously old school Fall Out Boy, rather than old school punk, and I for one think this one should have been saved for one of their more conventional LPs.

“Love, Sex, Death” is hardcore pure and simple, with the band barking out the chorus (it’s the song’s title) while the guitarists produce sparks. “Eternal Summer” is a slower number that takes off into hardcore territory, with Wentz shouting, “Hands in the air!/Hands in the air!” while the guitarist plays a strange riff that reminds me of absolutely nobody. “Demigods” doesn’t work that well, despite its throbbing guitar riffs and propulsion. There’s a strange instrumental interlude (featuring one very distorted guitar) in the middle that I find interesting, but then again I find Pol Pot interesting too.

“American Made” doesn’t capture my imagination either. Wentz is front and foremost, whining about how he wants his childhood back, while the band plays but makes no impression on me whatsoever, aside from the din they produce at the song’s beginning. The guitars don’t play it hard and they don’t play it fast, so what’s the use? I feel the same way about closer “Caffeine Cold,” which sounds more like a conventional Fall Out Boy song to me than a punk or hardcore throwback. In short, it’s more pop punk, although it closes with an instrumental interlude that came from God knows where. Not The Misfits, that’s for sure, or Black Flag for that matter.

Which is the real problem with the album. It doesn’t rise to the level of its purported influences, and proves you can’t turn a squirrel into a mountain lion, try as you might—you can only turn it into a meaner, leaner squirrel. Taken as a whole PAX AM Days is a failure, but it is also the only Fall Out Boy release that I can listen to without throwing up in my mouth, and that’s something. They gave it their best, you have to hand them that, but they failed to take their experiment to its limits, and hence blew their shot at some type of critical respectability. But then again, what do they care? Their bread and butter are my treacle, and they have a bazillion fans who love them, and that’s that. Maybe they’ll try something completely new and different at some point in the future, and hit paydirt. I wouldn’t count on it, but anything’s possible in the fabulous world of emo, where squirrels rule.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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  • Reskas

    FOB concert schedule for this year can be found here

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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