Click to hear: “Camel”
Damn those ideological conservatives. You know, those knee-jerk dogmatics who just refuse to compromise, to accept or listen to anyone but their own kind. They’ll condemn anything that doesn’t meet their fundamentalist principles with a simple, blisteringly derogatory label, one employed by dismissive ideological conservatives since the Reagan era. You hear it sneered anywhere these conservatives gather. Like, say, at Geno’s, or Strange Maine, or the all-ages hardcore show in Westbrook.
That withering label?
“Not real punk.”
Punk fans are to rock and roll what strict constructionists are to judicial philosophy. And they can be just as full of shit. To these minds, punk was born fully formed, and is purest the closest it stays to the original document. Hence a band like Big Meat Hammer, the punkest of Portland bands, can get away with a song called “Retro Music Sucks,” while sounding exactly like early ’80s hardcore. The irony isn’t missed, it’s nonexistent. To the Hammer, like other ideological conservatives, progress is a fool’s errand. Retro music is what other, fashion-conscious bands play. Since punk is oblivious to changing fashion, it can’t be retro. Punk never changes, only “not real punk” bands do.
As witnessed in other ideologically conservative camps, this inevitably leads to internal warfare with anyone who strays from the creed. Bands that claim punk lineage and principles, while playing mutant strains like post-punk, emo, or pop-punk, are self-righteously excommunicated. Of course, many of these “not real punk” bands are horrible anyway, but merit isn’t the issue.
Take, for example, The Leftovers, a young “not real punk” band from Portland. At their best, they’re reminiscent of great original punk groups like the Ramones and the Buzzcocks. They call themselves a punk band, and sensible people wouldn’t quibble.
The Leftovers, though, proudly play pop-punk, that strain antithetical to conservative punks. Singer Kurt Baker loves the Ramones, yes, but ABBA too, and he no doubt sees punk not as a set of rules, but as another great sound to write pop songs for. On “Camel,” one of the band’s newest recordings (currently available on their MySpace page: myspace.com/theleftovers), The Leftovers employ the immediacy and early-rock-and-roll sensibility of the original punks to deliver one of the area’s best recent pop songs. That may be heresy for some, but it’s a great track for the rest of us.
All of the facets of pop-punk are identifiable on “Camel.” Baker’s unintentionally Elvis Costello–like voice can sound whiney, as can the self-derogatory lyrics (a hallmark of the genre). Unlike most pop-punk, though, “Camel” has plenty of non-formulaic hooks, and a propulsive rush that can call to mind the early Beatles, another of Baker’s favorite non-punk bands.
The single – or more accurately, the MySpace MP3 – has garnered the band considerable, and well deserved, attention. It’s helped them pick up an expenses-paid UK tour and a notable (ask the band) producer. For all the dross that clutters MySpace, patient people are apparently still finding their way to the gems.
“Camel” is a welcome leap forward from The Leftovers, showing the band moving closer to the creativity of the great pop bands Baker idolizes, and distancing the group in spirit, if not sound, from the more predictable pop-punk bands that make up the other half of their inspiration. The Leftovers have expressed confusion about their inability to write a pack of “Camel”s per practice. Hopefully Baker and his mates have since realized that good pop takes as much craft as inspiration, and that one great single is much better than a dozen OK album tracks.
There’s evidence for that. Over the summer, Baker found inspiration once again and crafted “Summertime Girls,” under the alias Amadeus Baker (myspace.com/kurtbakermusicmaker). It’s an homage to the Beach Boys, another of his favorite bands, but unfortunately it’s also a “funny” knock-off of Ric Ocasek–style synth-rock.
“Summertime Girls” is retro music, an ’80s joke, and while it doesn’t quite suck, you can hear what Big Meat Hammer were getting at. It’s a good pop song, with a chorus worth waiting for, but you still can’t help but think it would sound better with some distorted power chords and the energy of, say, a late ’70s punk band.
All of which is to say that Baker clearly has two loves, pop and punk, and that The Leftovers are actually at their best when combining the two. They’re two great tastes that don’t always taste great together, but on “Camel,” the Leftovers have found their fried-chicken-and-waffles moment. It shouldn’t work, according to some, but it sure does, especially when prepared with such care and flair. “Camel” is just the song that can bridge the divide, bringing together punk fans both “real” and “not” in the spirit of enlightened compromise and mutual respect that our nation was built and thrives on.
Oh, wait, nevermind.
“Blow It Up”
If there’s one area group that doesn’t have to worry about credentials, it’s South Portland’s The Pockets. This duo is so hip hop, they make Rick Ross look like Bob Ross. It’s all there on “Blow It Up”: beats – check, flow – check, skills – check. Their next check might come from Def Jam.
Unlike 207 rap pretenders the Hoodlims – who, frankly, sound like a bunch of high school students goofing over a bad punk-funk band’s Dre covers – The Pockets fully represent. They represent SoPo hip hop like John Eder represents Maine House District 118. Is there a better compliment than that? Only difference is there’s nothing green about these battle-hardened veterans.
Despite their youth, these two, like Eder, certainly know what it’s like on the streets. “Blow It Up” is packed tight with unsettling imagery of life on the margins in 2006: casual violence, urban blight, temporal escape through beer and drugs. Do they bring what people want to hear? No. But they bring what’s real. It’s that realness that separates The Pockets from the fakes that make up the rest of South Portland’s hip hop scene.
In fact, the only time Young Sumpin’ Sumpin’ and Sheda’no don’t sound completely at ease behind the mic is when spitting mandatory shout outs to their “friends,” The Hoodlims. Girls, your talent is your best friend. Like a stolen rack in your knapsack, The Hoodlims are only going to weigh you down and hold you back. Your only option is to unload them right now and finish them off. Pop those suckaz and they’ll go down easy. You know what I’m sayin’?
The Pockets may be gangstars and basically BA, but like another killah named Ghostface, they have a whimsical, playful side, too, which is on full display on “When Trees Attack.” Of course, in the ’hood, even the fairy tales are grim. In The Pockets’ world, the trees are out to jump them, and deer spit slang and encourage them to be scuzbats.
In the grimy and crimey south side of Greater Portland, The Pockets are surrounded by negativity. It’s a testament to the group that they haven’t responded with the easy uplift of false positivity. By chronicling what’s real, they speak to the lives of all the real young thugs growing up around them. It may not be a strategy that will move a lot of records in the suburbs, but The Pockets have done something better – they’ve made a record that will move the streets.
— Jeremy Skehan