Descendents – Hypercaffium Spazzinate
I just finished my second annual pilgrimage at Masquerade’s Wrecking Ball weekend. And I’m happy to report that even though I suffered in the blazing sun for two 95+ degree days, my yolk is still only partially fried. Poached, perhaps – but not yet scrambled, smothered and covered.
Wrecking Balls 2015 and 2016 both served as a kind of microcosm for the state of present-day punk. Both events were more-or-less nostalgia fests for a generation two decades younger than myself. Yes, ’90s nostalgia is upon us in full. Emo and pop-punk have gotten so out of vogue that they’re in vogue again. The emo/pop-punk teenagers of the ’90s are now in their mid-to-late 30s – and they yearn for a simpler time. Ample years have elapsed so that it’s OK to reboot/rewind and admit that, yes, Taking Back Sunday and Blink-182 were pretty cool after all.
But wait a minute: the Descendents were a ’80s band, right? Yeah, right.
OK, here’s how the Wrecking Ball angle works. The band headlined the 2015 event, which we’ve already established was basically a ’90s-retro thing. The thing is, the Descendents’ first “comeback” was 1996’s Everything Sucks album. This is to say that the bulk of the attendees at the 2015 Wrecking Ball’s first intro to the band was probably its ’90s incarnation. So the Descendents kinda/sorta fit in as the missing link, X-factor band for the now 30-something members of ’90s/emo/pop-punk/retro thing. I mean, the Descendents inspired a host of ’90s emo and pop-punk bands – and it’s cool to like that stuff again…
So this is certainly an opportune time for pop-punk trailblazers, the Descendents, to emerge from self-imposed hibernation, right? Right.
The gratingly titled Hypercaffium Spazzinate is Descendents’ first album in 12 years. The new album’s parallel disc is not the antecedent Cool to Be You, but Everything Sucks. Cool to Be You wasn’t exactly bad, but it was below the band’s high standard – a little sluggish, somewhat overly morose and, well, “old-sounding.” (When I say “old-sounding” I don’t mean it sounded like a great old record: I mean it sounded like a mediocre record made by old [or at least older] people desperate to revive old glories – and that’s never good.)
Everything Sucks, in contrast to Cool to Be You, was a blast-from-the-past that was indeed a blast, as is the new album. Hypercaffium Spazzinate’s songs are catchy, the pace is fast, the music’s tighter-than-tight (drummer Bill Stevenson and bassist Karl Alvarez are locked in as usual), and Milo Aukerman is the singer.
The album only has a couple of issues, neither of which will be insurmountable for the listener. First of all, the band occasionally lapses into sophomorism (“No Fat Burger” and the Deluxe Edition bonus track “Grindstone”) which is…which is nothing new. The silly songs are so short that their irritation is only fleeting. The second issue is the guitar tone, which is (again) much like the sound on Everything Sucks. It’s that tweaked, all-lows-and-highs-but-no-mids, Mesa Boogie/Fat Wreck Chords sound that kind of wears you out after a while.
But the band’s strengths far outweigh their weaknesses on Hypercaffium Spazzinate. The songs are sturdily constructed and (with the exception of those two silly ones) consistently strong. Melody is where it’s at for these guys. And the great Milo Aukerman is simply himself, the quintessential, paradigmatic pop-punk singer who hits all the right notes with just enough rasp to give it some grist. Finally, there’s a certain depth and sincerity to the lyrics. Yeah, this is pop. And it’s kid stuff. But this is the kind of kid stuff that’s by-and-for adults of all ages. (“Adults of all ages?” I’ve hit a new low.) Some of this stuff (“Without Love” and “Smile”) can be downright touching.
Sure, the Descendents aren’t doing anything new. But really, Hypercaffium Spazzinate is about the best we could expect from the band at this point – and this is not to damn with faint praise, either. This is good music.