Yes, I'm Writing about Lagwagon and NUFAN, and You're Still Singing Along!

Listening to new records is sometimes a thankless job. For everything that rewards repeat listens, there is tons of dross to sift through. Yet every once in awhile, there are records that stick with you. Sometimes they are ignored after first listen; they sit on the shelf for years until you revisit them, blaming yourself for not finding their merits on early listens. Yet certain phrases stick in our ears for years. I remember the lyrics from records on cue, sometimes even after ten years.

As I write, I am listening to the Joey Cape / Tony Sly split, Acoustic, Volume Two. I was a big fan of Sly's No Use for a Name in high school. They were one of those bands that spoke volumes to my teenage self. Songs dealing with alienation and frustration, poppy punk or melodicore bands attracted many of us, pulling us into more "authentic" punk lifestyles. While seemingly candy-coated, these bands had enough authenticity for small town rebels and freethinkers. It was only later that many of us decided they weren't cool, switching to the Exploited or the Emo flavor of the month. Acoustic, Volume Two, on first listen, might appear to be just another in the long line of punks gone acoustic. Everyone has done it now. From Tim Barry of Avail to Hot Water Music's Chuck Ragan to bands like Against Me, which started with many acoustic tracks; the acoustic guitar slinger is hip. What separates Cape and Sly is their ability to still channel those teenage years of doubt through an approaching middle age viewpoint. Many of these songs first appeared on albums by Cape's Lagwagon or Sly's Nufan, but they seem to have greater resonance here. With just an acoustic guitar as a backdrop, the lyrics stand out in sharp relief. Cape's "Know It All" is a scathing (I know it's an overused word) indictment of college radio DJ's and hipster snobs who lord their musical knowledge over others, refusing to believe that there are good successful bands.

We have all felt this way -- I remember when Green Day "sold out" in 1994 -- I felt betrayed as their audience grew. Many of us felt like they were our secret band, but now all the uncool people were listening to them. This is a common situation in the punk rock community and Cape's lyrics are as true now as they were in 1993, when the song first appeared on Duh. The song is catchy and its lyrics still ring in my head from time to time. When I heard the song, I started singing along. Cape sings "It's like certain bands remind you of someone you hated/'Cause they didn't wear the right clothing /And there's only one true fashion /Alot of the bands on the college charts are great bands/Until they get signed. Then you hate them /It's such bullshit - you used to love them you hypocrite," and our teenage fears come into clear focus. Last year, several of my students were talking about how Green Day just sold out -- I wanted to tell them that it was like 1994 all over again, but they would have looked at me like the old, confused elephant in the room. I let it go.

Tony Sly's rendition of the NUFAN song, "Soulmate" does not have the immediacy of the original version. Piano accompanies his acoustic guitar, and it feels like a torch song sung at a hipper piano bar. Surprisingly, the lyrics are still imminently singable. Sly sings "The devil on your shoulder gives you strength in paranoia / The countless times you called a few /Your best friend 'til the end of time, They'll always be there by your side," and all the insecurities I felt hearing the song in high school come in close. Sly is at his best telling the stories of the forgotten and ignored, and the piano melodies add to the haunting qualities of his lyrics. Stripped down, his songs take on a more solemn quality. A confused high schooler, college student, or those of us approaching middle age can still  take comfort in his songs. We can also sing along to them, damn it! We might be sneered at by the cool kids, but they can have their Dropkick Murphys. We prefer the Swingin' Utters anyway. We will be singing the songs that stick in our heads for years to come. Too bad, Tony Sly is no longer with us to keep writing them. He passed away on July 31, 2012. He will be missed. 

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