What meaning does grunge – a genre built on flannel, apathy and bong hits – still hold in 2010? According to Violent Soho’s eponymous second record not much at all, writes RENÉ SCHAEFER.
Like punk, the epithet grunge means a lot of things to a lot of different people. For many who came of age during grunge’s first flowering in the early ’90s, listening to Nirvana’s bastard offspring now is a bitter-sweet experience. Any sense of nostalgia is quickly subsumed by an immense disappointment at grunge’s failure to live up to its initial promise: to blast the cobwebs off a moribund pop culture.
In hindsight, it’s clear that a musical movement built on apathy, cynicism and pulling bongs could never truly change anything. Grunge lacked clear messages or politics and was ripe for exploitation by a music industry hungry for a last wad of cash before the looming digital apocalypse.
So where does a young neo-grunge band from Brisbane called Violent Soho fit into the picture? Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore loved them and signed them to his uber cool Ecstatic Peace label; they have been touring their arses off relentlessly in America and Canada, alongside luminaries such as Built To Spill, Dinosaur Jr and The Bronx; veteran producer Gil Norton (Pixies, Foo Fighters) has put his distinctive sonic stamp on their self-titled major label sophomore album; and the current single ‘Jesus Stole My Girlfriend’ has cracked both the Billboard Top 40 and the Canadian Top 20.
Surely we should be proud, but the question is: what meaning does grunge still hold in 2010? The outward trappings of the style, adopted with gusto by Violent Soho, are a kind of shorthand for honesty and passion in music, but beyond the mighty crunch of the guitars, the thudding monster drums and the straining vocals, what we are left with are songs that practically beg for comparison to their progenitors.
Sounding like Nirvana or The Pixies is something Violent Soho appear to be completely at ease with. In so closely aligning themselves with these much-loved and oft-copied icons, Violent Soho must be very sure of their ability to measure up. They can certainly play their instruments and construct a decent quiet/loud rock song, but let’s face it - so can thousands of other aspiring young musicians. Examining Violent Soho’s songs gives little indication that they possess either the wit of Black Francis, or the ability to express existential angst ala Kurt Cobain.
“Beyond the mighty crunch of the guitars, the thudding monster drums and the straining vocals, what we are left with are songs that practically beg for comparison to their progenitors.”
Songs like ‘Son Of Sam’ and ‘Love Is A Heavy Word’ may have some decent hooks, but they suffer from the kind of heavy-handed production that already seemed dated a decade ago. ‘Generation’ sets itself up as a contemporary answer to The Who’s Mod anthem, but communicates little beyond a trite hedonism. The structure and chords of ‘Muscle Junkie’ are pure cliche and become tiresome without the benefit of a contrasting middle-eight or a memorable sing-along chorus.
Of the more successful songs, ‘Outsider’ is a nice acoustic ballad, which allows listeners to appreciate Luke Boerdam’s voice in a more conducive setting than the “Modern Rock” bombast that dominates the rest of this record. A simple cello part adds some emotional resonance. Too bad about the fifth form poetry.
‘Slippery Tongue’, despite its indebtedness to Cobain, is actually a fine tune and features some cool guitar parts that sound like cats meowing backwards, while the emo-inflected FM rock of ‘Narrow Ways’ points towards a potential future songwriting direction. Tasteful slide guitar parts lift the song above the morass of grunge-by-numbers and the vocal delivery sounds slightly less histrionic.
The problem is that Silverchair made a record like this 15 years ago – and it wasn’t very good then. The Vines’ Highly Evolved repeated the formula seven years later and shot up the charts around the world. Violent Soho’s record company has got its fingers crossed for another Aussie success story. The band’s proven work ethic makes them a safer bet in terms of longevity and profitability than The Vines ever were. But to justify their already considerable success overseas, Violent Soho needed to deliver an album that expressed something original about its creators. Instead, they have failed to establish that they are more than a group of clever imitators.
Violent Soho is out now through Liberation/Universal.