I have waxed rhapsodic over the joys of the compilation album before, but here’s a reminder: I love the idea of twenty or more bands all chilling on the same disc. SXSW is kind of like one giant compilation, if you conflate seeing music live and hearing it recorded.
But what’s even better than a great comp is a great comp from a high-quality label. If that label is a homegrown, upstart indie, all the better! And Community Records (no, really, that’s the awesome name) has released just such a disc with their Compilation Volume 3: Old Dog, New Tricks. The album showcases 26 (!) bands associated with the New Orleans-based label; a footnote states, “Download free music from all of these bands on our web-site.” (That’s prolific!)
Some well-known bands like A Billion Ernies, Marathon and Swear Jar are present here, alongside a slew of up-and-comers. The music falls into five general genres: pop-punk, ska, hardcore/post-hardcore, acoustic and reggae-ish stuff.
The pop-punk is the lion’s share of the material. Caddywhompus’ “The Weight” won my heart by incorporating prog-based rhythms and melodies into its pop-punk, giving the song a very Fang Island-esque feel. Safety’s “Alone Together” throws down great melodies and energy in an early-2000s pop-punk style; the action-packed 91 seconds of The Rooks’ “The Benefit of Fish Tacos” throws all sorts of things into an unconventional song structure. The off-kilter “I’m Not Done Yet” by All People is oddly catchy as well.
The highlights of the ska offerings are the wildly varied tune by A Billion Ernies, the rhythms-not-horns ska of “They Can’t Fix Me” by Matt Wixson’s Flying Circus, and the gruff ska-punk of Brunt of It’s “Bad Sign.”
I wasn’t too into the loud stuff or the reggae, but the acoustic offerings are worth note: my favorite tune on the whole comp is See You in Mexico’s “Human Race.” It starts off as a pensive, moody tune in the Deja Entendu vein, then kicks into acoustic-punk high gear for the satisfying conclusion. The vocal melodies and harmonies are especially notable. Closer “Live On” by Matt Wixson (minus the Flying Circus) is a charming, lo-fi acoustic pop song that could be sung around campfires forever. “Summer’s Slumber” by Dominique LeJeune is a poignant, female-fronted acoustic love song that made me swoon a bit.
There’s all sorts of things inbetween, from woozy, New Orleans-style jazz bombast (Stuck Lucky’s “Finland”) to the indie-rock haze of Sun Hotel’s “Talks.” I mean, with 27 tracks, there’s almost something for everyone who even remotely likes the idea of modern punk. That should be a strong motivator for you to check out Community Records’ Old Dog, New Tricks.
Dumpster Generation by A Billion Ernies is a hard-hitting album that rarely lets up from start to finish. If you’re not familiar with the band, their sound is a mix of ska and hard rock. Think Emery or Chevelle meets Streetlight Manifesto. It’s standard rock instrumentation, plus trumpet, trombone, and a vocalist prone to bouts of screaming. A Billion Ernies maintain a relatively raw sound – not quite garage rock, but not all that far from it, either.
The album opens with “Two Kings” and “Used Up.” They’re actually a little softer than other songs on the album, with more of an emphasis on the ska influence. “Two Kings” is a little heavy on the bass, and almost anthemic at points, then transitions into a much harder rock tonality about 2:00 in. “Used Up” has a little more of the same, with powerful vocals and backup vocal hits. There’s a driving, upbeat tempo, with periodic screaming and brass (trumpet and trombone, if you’re curious; typical ska instrumentation, though I definitely hear saxophone as well, which is a little less common).
Also good are “The Existentialist’s Apprentice” and “Idea12,” which display a broader range and more versatility than other songs on the album. “The Existentialist’s Apprentice” starts off with a cool guitar lick and drums; it’s less metal or hard rock and more light ska. That’s all relative, of course – everything on the album is harder than most ska groups, like Streetlight Manifesto or Suburban Legends. “Idea12” has a cool beginning with some Latin influence. Lyrics start with, “Another day / another dollar / another eight hours of feeling used/ This is not where I’m supposed to be” and add great tone. This is one of the better examples of their sound, with broad style and energy that varies from a quiet opening to a loud, bombastic chorus, with great use of all of their instrumentation. At around 2:00, it breaks down into hard rock that’s strangely reminiscent of early Blindside (certainly not a bad thing to remind me of).
Unfortunately, A Billion Ernies sometimes goes a bit far into the hard rock territory, losing the ska edge that makes their sound unique. Songs like “Point-Click” default to generic hard rock and screamo, which I found a little disappointing. It feels more like rock that just happens to have a few brass musicians hanging around. The album also drooped a little at the end, with songs like “Athiest” and “Addict” failing to impress me. It is worth noting that it ends on a positive note; “Thanks” is an acoustic piece, borderline singer-songwriter business. It’s got a very raw, back-room unpolished feel to it, with strong lyrics that proclaim, “Count your blessings / You’re still alive, who knows / Your mother could have killed you / Before you arrived / What a world.” I found it an interesting and welcome way to end the album.
Dumpster Generation is a solid release, though not everyone will find it appealing – hard ska-rock is definitely a niche genre. I found much of it to be enjoyable, but a wider range and more exploration of alternative sounds would have been welcome. Too often a song would devolve into mindless screaming. I’m all for hard stuff, but without reason it becomes a little self-indulgent.
I realize this is all a little muddled. Frankly, that’s because I’ve got mixed feelings. Consider this a “yes, but…” recommendation. It’s a good album, but I would like to see more variation and innovation from A Billion Ernies in the future.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.