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February 20, 2004

The Poster Children: alterna-rock all grown up

Growing up with three brothers and no sisters was both a blessing and a curse. Fights almost always ended with them shaking my Barbie Dream House until my meticulously-arranged balcony foliage and furniture fell to the carpet in a plastic mess, and I ran like hell to my mother. The positive memories, however, outlast the negative ones—like riding on my oldest brother's coattails through the wonderful world of early '90s alternative rock. I may not have had a sister's closet from which I could steal clothes, but I did have my oldest brother's CD tower. I had a whole assortment of music at my disposal, and it influenced me more, from my Pixies obsession to my first hearing of "Blister In The Sun," than any shoe-laden wardrobe would have.

While I heard them blasting in my brother's room for years, it wasn't until freshman year of college that I really gave the Poster Children a fair listen. In a downloading frenzy, I added their CD Flower Power to my music library. I was blown away by their raw, hook-laden material. The CD was made from two previously self-released cassettes. The first four songs were produced by Steve Albini (Nirvana, the Pixies) and sound like it—grungy guitar licks and fussy drumming prevail. And as can be said for anything produced early on by Albini, a certain college feel comes across (This is especially apparent in the Poster Children catalogue as wife/singer/bassist Rose Marshack and husband/singer/guitarist Rick Valentin are University of Illinois alumni and still currently work there as software engineers.)

Brothers and guitarists Rick and Jim Valentin formed the band in Western Springs, a Chicago suburb, in 1987 (the 'burb has its very own song on their newest album). In the past 17 years, the band have released eight albums and one EP and nearly self-produced all of them. Obviously, compared to the majority of modern rock groups, the Poster Children take on a more D.I.Y. approach. They record at non-flashy studios (Bit Riot! Studios in Champaign) and do not employ high-priced sound engineers or publicists. In fact, it wasn't until 1992 that they signed to a major label, Sire Records. To this day, they still make all their cover art, create all the multimedia features on their CDs (from filming to formatting), maintain their own website, and even drive themselves around on cross-country tours in a van. And they still find time to replace their drummer every couple of years: the drummer on the new album, Matt Friscia, is their seventh.

But that doesn't hinder his collaboration with the band on their newest release, No More Songs About Sleep and Fire, one bit. The way the catchy pulse of "Western Springs" and the flailing bangs of "The Leader" dovetail the guitars and vocals is evidence of this. On their self-titled release, drummer Brendan proved his dexterity in songs like "Modern Art" and "Dangerous Life" by applying drum rolls and drum intros liberally. However, on No More Songs, Friscia illuminates the guitar's rhythm and guides the vocals between the quiet and raucous paths.

In addition to the drumming, the 12-track, 37-minute disc flawlessly bounces between old school guitar and improved vocals. In "Jane," the opening track, Rick's vocals bounce off Rose's bass riffs, bringing the song to resemble something the Talking Heads might produce on a jug of Maxwell House. Standout track "The Leader," a political satire dominated by a brawny main riff, bounces back and forth between drum interlude and megaphone vocals. The aftertaste resembles that of a Mudhoney song, but don't be fooled: the sound has that certain Poster Children flair that even Mark Arm couldn't muster.

The electric melody of "The Floor" leaps out, following the acoustic guitar intro and Rick's belted howls. Rose's high-pitched background croons resemble Kim Deal's in "Where Is My Mind?" by the Pixies and give the song the same oomph. It is also important to note that the opening riff to "Sugarfriend" is what riff intros should sound like and that the synchronization in "Shy" is a perfect example of rock harmony done right.

It's a shame that the band has mostly remained a mainstay only among big brothers and Chicagoland. While the '90s alterna-rock explosion is long gone, this doesn't mean that the Poster Children are. They are the predecessor's of today's indie rock, stealing from, yes, their own predecessors. Nonetheless, this album is worth listening to if you've heard them before, or even if you haven't. It isn't the best record they've produced in the past 17 years, but it's definitely up there. You won't be disappointed—my brother swears by it.