Pop-punk pioneers take peers to school on new disk

By Evan Arnold

On their 1996 release Everything Sucks, the Descendents asked, “What will I be like when I get old?” With their new release on Fat Wreck Chords, the definitive answer is, “Much the same, but older and less awesome.” Can I get away with saying negative things about the Descendents? Their 1982 release, Milo Goes to College, is credited with founding the pop-punk sound. Milo, their lead singer, liked science, but also listened to the Ramones and the Doors. Thus, resentful-dork rock was born.

The product was angry, energetic, hateful of the suburbs, crass, and fun. Of course, this also gave rise to the boy-meets-girl pop-punk ballad. In the 20-plus years since the album’s release, the sound has been diluted and repackaged. Sum 41 and Blink-182 took rejection and made it frat boy sing-along, made it pop, and made it profitable. Ironically, the Descendents are frequently referred to as a hardcore band by comparison.

Perhaps unfairly, I expected the Descendents to use this album to reclaim the genre, to give it depth, to give it wisdom. I hoped they would push aside the spiky purple-haired boys and show them who the men were. I fantasized about the Descendents swaggering into the room to remind people of the thrilling freshness they once offered their fans.

Sadly, the hardest-rocking track on this album is a song about farting (“Blast Off”). Milo belts, “Toilet seat is your launching pad/Blast off.” “‘Merican” is a Bad Religion-esque, ham-fisted parody of ignorant Americans. They go through the motions, and insist that they are still dorks (“Mass Nerder”), that they are fed up with themselves (“Tack” and “Dog and Pony Show”), and they still have saccharine, romantic relationships with women both at home (“Maddie”) and on the road (“Talking”). The songs are no different than anything the band has done in the past, except perhaps with less energy. It’s hard to fight the urge to turn off the CD and put on one of their older vinyls.

Nonetheless, the record is not an entire flop. Some tracks have maturity and substance not found on earlier records. The title track, “Cool to Be You,” written by bassist Karl Alvarez, first evokes the Descendents’ early releases, specifically the song “Suburban Home.” It’s a sassy taunt of middle class, myopic Christian sensibilities. However, the sarcasm is ambiguous, and reveals conflicted emotions. While the words “cool to be you” are clearly mocking, the lyrics express a longing for bourgeois comfort and self-assurance. Milo sings, “You got a deep sustaining faith…And I was told to believe./I wonder if God believes in me?” The Descendents might still spurn a suburban home, but now they see some of the appeal.

One thing that first attracted me to the Descendents was that Milo is primarily a biologist. Since the band formed, he has earned his bachelors degree up through his Ph.D. The Descendents only re-form when he is able to take a break from academia. However, his scientific career does not appear to be going well. He bemoans in “Tact”: “Jumping through their hoops/Only to find nothing/Waiting for me/But academic oblivion.” While Milo is pursuing his studies, the remaining three-fourths of the Descendents combine with a rotating lead singer to form the band All. The current singer from All, Chad Price, does backing vocals on this album. His gentle southern cadence nicely adds to the portrait of decay and lost chances.

The production, done at Blasting Room studies, is warm and perfectly suggestive. At their best, the band mixes practiced melodies and maudlin distortion with honesty and subtle innovation. One could easily mistake “One More Day” for a typical love song. Instead, it is a heartfelt meditation on the loss of a father. Milo sings, “I’ll always wonder/If I could have meant more to you./I’ll always wonder/If I could have done more for you.” The sincerity and vulnerability in this song makes the derivative idiocy of the others look like cruel self-parody. But thankfully, that criticism doesn’t apply to the album as a whole.