Longtime readers might remember a semi-recurring comic reading project I kicked off a while back called simply The Box. I’d gotten a box of comics from my inlaws, would reach in and pull out a few random issues, give them a read and write a review. Well, I recently found myself in a similar situation, but with CDs thanks to an awesome package from my pal Jesse. In an effort to not only make my way through the discs, but also create some kind of record of what I liked and didn’t like about them and also sharpen my music-writing chops a bit, I’ve created The Music Box. I select a disc at random, listen to it without doing any research, write a review and then look the band up. Should be fun.
The first entry comes from a punk band called Schleprock, specifically their 1996 album (America’s) Dirty Little Secret. I was excited when I pulled this one out because it reminded me of some of the pop punk records I bought in high school and into college. I still listen to Green Day and Sublime. I enjoyed my fair share of records by bands like Suicide Machines, Blink-182, Sum 41 and some of the ska groups like Goldfinger, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Save Ferris and Reel Big Fish. There was an earnestness and passion there that wanted to break away from normal society and just do their own thing. As a teenager who felt far from normal, it’s hard not to relate to those themes, especially when they’ve become popular and burst forth from the radio and MTV on a regular basis. Plus fast easy-to-play guitar riffs are just fun.
So, Schleprock. Part of me wondered if this would be some forgotten gem. The kind of record that was produced by a band that fell apart for some reason or decided to shirk off the responsibilities of recording for a major label like Warner Bros. But, the far more likely seems to be the case: this band was picked up and produced to cash in on the popularity of the bands I mentioned above. After doing a little research — I had to resort to Google because there’s no Wiki page — I discovered that these guys not only took their name from a Flinstones spinoff character, but also formed in 1989, got signed to WB the same year this record came out and broke up in 1997.
First and foremost, I’ve got to say that (America’s) Dirty Little Secret isn’t a bad record. Vocalist Doug Caine, guitarists Jeff Graham and Sean Romin, drummer Dirty Ernie and bassist Dean Wilson made a good sounding record. They play well together and, musically, created some interesting songs that do a lot of the things you’d expect from a SoCal punk band from the 90s: rapid fire snare drums, bright bass parts, gang vocals, occasional surf rock inspired guitar lines, chunky riffs and solos that honestly surprised my with not only their presence, but their quality.
But, that’s kind of the problem, this record and this band just sound SO much like what you’d expect them to sound like (aside from the out-of-nowhere steel drum solo on “TV Dinner”). While those elements might have brought me into the world of SoCal punk back in the day, now they set off recognition alarms in my head that I can’t always trace back to the source, but still recognize. Sometimes they sound like Goldfinger, sometimes it’s Suicide Machines. Other times lead singer Caine decides to sing like Johnny Rotten. It’s cool to make nods or musical references to your heroes — I still remember how cool it was realizing that Billy Joe Armstrong said “problem” just like Johnny Rotten as a kind of nod — but you can’t do it too much because it comes off as copycat-ish.
Making matters worse, while I the instrumentation of the tracks was solid, the songs themselves didn’t do much for me. As far as I’m concerned, it’s cool to mess around in a genre, but you’ve got to bring something new or different to the table and I don’t think this record did that. On the other hand, the video for “Suburbia” above is actually unique and interesting. These kinds of songs all sound fairly familiar and just don’t do a lot for me, aside from the album’s final track “Back With A Bang” which focuses on a Unabomber type individual. And even that one devolves into the whole band singing the chorus over and over and over again until they hit the three minute mark and bounce. In fact, a lot of the songs used that trick which made me think there was a good deal of filler on this record.
So, my first listen to (America’s) Dirty Little Secret didn’t exactly feel like uncovering a buried treasure Indiana Jones-style. It didn’t insult or offend by any means, I just felt like I’ve heard these tricks done better by other artists. Then, I played the record again while doing dishes and a little work and it was fine. This music makes for great background music because you don’t really have to focus on it, especially if you have a history with this style.
Here’s the thing, this music has a series of tropes that everyone played with that don’t necessarily age well. Since the bag o’ tricks is fairly limited, you associate them with certain artists, songs and records you heard first. Had I listened to Schleprock when I was 13, I probably would have loved them and added them into the punk rock section of my CD collection, but since I’m 30, I don’t know if I’ll even think to listen to them again.