January 23, 2004

The Poster Children "No More Songs About Sleep and Fire"

For a rock band as long-lived and prolific as the Poster Children (nine releases in sixteen years, as well as a couple of dance records under the pseudonym Salaryman), you’d think that I’d have heard their music more than twice before listening to this record. My first exposure to them was in 1995, when I saw their video for “Junior Citizen” on the much-missed MTV program 120 Minutes. The band released an album of the same name that year, and although few of its songs were as bad as the mediocre “cyber-punk” of its title track, it still wasn’t essential. My second exposure to the Poster Children came in 2002 when they opened for the Breeders in Austin. They didn’t play any songs from Junior Citizen, which wasn’t a surprise considering how old the record is. What surprised me was that the newer numbers they played were faster, louder, and leaner than anything on that record was. It’s definitely a rare thing for rock bands to, instead of mellow out, get more abrasive as they age. Watching bassist/singer Rose jump around with a mile-wide grin on her face like a sugar-fueled tomboy should be a breath of fresh air to anyone who’s seen one too many performers act like they don’t want to be on stage. A diehard fan of the band spastically danced in front of the stage in the same manner that I do at Guided by Voices shows. Although I liked the Poster Children’s set, I still didn’t think they were worthy of my devotion yet. WhenNo More Songs About Sleep and Fire arrived in my mailbox, it kicked me in the behind as soon as I put it in the CD player.

The first thing I noticed was the airtight instrumental interplay. None of these songs have more than four chords, but they never sound simplistic. This is because every member of the band knows how to use space and noise to their best advantage. Most of the songs sound as if they’re built from the rhythm section upwards. Even when the rhythms get complex, Rose and new drummer Matt stay in the kind of sync that most bands would need years to develop. Whether strumming power chords, playing nimble single-note riffs, or not playing at all, guitarists Rick and Jim do nothing more or less than what is truly best for the song. It’s almost as if the Poster Children have taken notes from the entire history of post-punk, from Wire and Gang of Four to Talking Heads and the Pixies, and constructed their own lesson plan. “The Floor,” arguably the album’s catchiest song, could have easily fit on the latter's Trompe Le Monde.

The lyrics are just as strong as the music. The opening track, “Jane,” extols the virtue of a teenage friend that Rose practices martial arts with. The smart, independent, and self-sufficient girl described in its lyrics could provoke budding young feminists to adopt the song as an them of their own, and I hope it does! Under a backdrop of hyper-kinetic disco-punk, “Flag” concisely chastises people who confuse political disagreement with treason; the flag “belongs to me as much as it belongs to you.” “The Leader” could be viewed as an attack on mainstream America’s unquestioning support of President Bush, but the lyrics keep things general enough for the song to apply to all of human history, ensuring that the song will remain timeless. In “Now It’s Gone,” Rick observes how tragedy only manages to bring people together for a short time before they divide themselves once again, with no lessons learnt. Again, though, the lyrics are general enough to apply to situations other than pre- and post-9/11 America. Not all of the songs on this record are overtly political: other subjects tackled include fair-weather friends, shyness, alcoholism, movies, and the quietude of the suburbs. No matter what, though, the lyrics avoid both vagueness and sanctimony in a manner similar to the Intima’s Peril and Panic, the best political agit-punk record of LAST year.

The Poster Children are also to be commended for their multimedia savvy. The CD version of No More Songs About Sleep and Fire come with an album-length commentary track from Rick and Rose, as well as a video for album highlight “Western Springs.” The commentary track is particularly enlightening, as it reveals many things that I already suspected from listening to the music. “I’m a riff guy,” Rick admits at one point, and I thought to myself, “No s**t, Sherlock.” Rick and Rose tell you which songs on the record were built off of bass or drum parts (almost all of them), and make self-deprecating jokes about using too few chords in their songs. Rick discusses his frustration being constantly compared to the B-52s’ Fred Schneider (which is why I hate to admit that I think he sounds like him too). Rose even admits to sequencing Poster Children records according to which songs she likes the most, which might have something to do with why the first five songs RULE and the last three songs are just okay. Unlike many bands, The Poster Children don’t use multimedia to compensate for wack music. They use it as a way to enhance music that holds up well enough on its own, as well as a way to extend a hand of fellowship to their fans. Rick and Rose even encourage listeners to e-mail them at the track’s end. I don’t know about you, but that just warms my heart.

Put simply, No More Songs About Sleep and Fire is a powerhouse of a record that definitely taught me a lesson. In their second decade of existence, at a point in which most other bands get either complacent or just plain BAD, the Poster Children are just getting started. Rick and Rose recently had a child together, so I’m pretty sure the band won’t hit the road for a while. If and when they do, though, the spastic diehard in Austin will definitely have a dancing partner.

---Sean Padilla

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