I suspect that both Jordan Blilie and Johnny Whitney, dueling singers and shriekers for the brutal Seattle pop-hardcore outfit Blood Brothers, both own the same book, perhaps displayed on their respective coffee tables, perhaps wedged on their respective bookshelves between Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and The Complete Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. The title of this book would be along the lines of A Compendium of Thoroughly Unpleasant Lyrical Imagery.
Tonight we tie the noose around the killer’s collar! Watch him play his windpipe organ! Just five dollars to see a face explode, to see a man strung up by his throat!
That’s from a song entitled “My First Kiss at the Public Execution.”
Those tire tracks zigzag your torso like the devil’s self-portrait/The car accident/The skin graft treatment/The flower baskets/The wincing relatives.
“Love Rhymes with Hideous Car Wreck.”
Candy’s blowing in the breeze/Those rats devoured her in her sleep/Her skin’s tied to the bedpost like a flag on a ship of ghosts.
“Rats and Rats and Rats for Candy.”
“I’ve always tended to go toward things that are a bit more saturated, a bit more over-the-top, in terms of the lyrics I write,” Johnny admits, ringing in from the BBs’ never-ending tour. “Our T-shirt designs are pretty out there. It’s not a conscious decision — that’s just kind of how I’ve been brought up creatively. It’s not like Marilyn Manson or anything like that. I think the whole shock-rock thing is kind of a little tacky.”
Shock is invariably one’s first impression of the Blood Brothers’ Crimes, which is without question the most hostile, grating, and violently exhilarating record to trigger mainstream critical euphoria in 2004. The quintet first garnered that euphoria for 2003’s Burn, Piano Island, Burn!, a collection of five-minute prog-thrash mini-epics (appropriate song title: “Every Breath Is a Bomb”) that introduced the world at large to Jordan and Johnny’s excellent love/hate cofrontman dynamic. Both are essentially satanic disciples of Looney Toons voiceover genius Mel Blanc — they conjure up an endless, endlessly terrifying army of groaners, mumblers, crooners, horse whisperers, pig destroyers. At full shriek, they sound absolutely inhuman.
But that inhumanity proved hard to sustain live; stringing three or four Piano Island barn-burners together onstage proved exhausting. (“Fucking impossible,” as the band put it.) That’s one reason Crimes paces itself, mixing two-minute hardcore blowouts like “Teen Heat” and “Beautiful Horses” with moody, creepy cabaret piano jams like “Live at the Apocalypse Cabaret.” (Bonus unpleasant lyrical image: Baby heads planted in the ground don’t make baby trees.)
Another reason, of course, is that Johnny has about had it with hardcore. “As a music listener, outside of being in this band, I would say that I’ve been bored with that kind of music for a very long time,” he says. “I listen to a lot of stuff: Nick Cave, Tom Waits, a lot of moodier stuff. I don’t really listen to any hardcore. That isn’t to say that as a band, that’s not something we’ll continue to do. Actually, we’ve written a couple songs since Crimes, and they actually sound a lot more like our first record, a lot more noisy and chaotic.”
The trick, of course, is making noise and chaos poignant. Even the praise heaped on the Brothers turns them into cartoon demons, content with kicking your ass, taking your name, and stealing your money: “They sound like they’re too busy tearing their limbs off and hitting one another over the head with them to think about what the songs actually mean,” Spin cracked.
But Johnny blows off this sort of thing: “I think it’s funny. A lot of people who review music are secretly creative writers trying to get their jollies off on describing other bands,” he notes. “The quotes when people review our records are really funny.” (For the record, I personally reached for a “Miniature Ian MacKayes drowning in your bowl of Cheerios” line.)
Indeed, Crimes often resembles the Evil Dead series: cartoonish, gleeful gore for the hell of it. “A lot of the lyrics, it’s just intended to be what it is — it’s not supposed to have a deeper innate meaning,” Johnny says. “I’ve tried to inject my opinions in our lyrics, and it always ends up sounding ridiculous.”
But the album’s last two songs come closest to melding the Brothers’ actual politics — on last week’s Inauguration Day, they played an “Anti-Inaugural Ball” in Seattle, partially benefiting Life for Relief and Development, an Iraq-connected humanitarian organization — with the hostility of their music. Both “Celebrator” and “Devastator” address Iraq with the band’s trademark lack of subtlety: blood, oil, death, destruction. And as ugly as it is, it somehow resonates the way your Bruce Springsteens and Michael Moores just can’t.
I just want to join the party, but the piñata’s stuffed with oil and sand/I just want the flag to be my baby, but her kissing breath is so revolting/Tastes like hospitals, machine guns, burning hair, McDonald’s buns/I peel the wrapping paper back, and I’m staring at an amputee/When they fish a corpse out of the pool the applause light goes beep, beep, beep, beep/The children smile and clap their hands when they pull another baby from the rubble.
Howard Zinn should be proud. Poe probably would be. As for yourself, feel at liberty to be thoroughly disturbed.