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Naomi Punk and Misplaced 90s Nostalgia

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Naomi Punk

By Erika Elizabeth

Naomi Punk / Hampshire College Dining Commons / Amherst, MA / 11.18.12
We’re in Western Massachusetts, a geographic area where J Mascis, Frank Black, and half of Sonic Youth are all in the local phone book.

Naomi Punk are in town from Olympia, WA, playing a show in the dining hall at Hampshire College to a crowd of college kids, most of whom I’m guessing were born in the 90s. Naomi Punk’s musical palette is also squarely situated in the Bill Clinton era, and it might seem unfair to single them out for their derivative flannel-flying, given that there’s hundreds of young Naomi Punks out there inspired by the same bands that were first inspired by the SST Records back catalog as we speak. I’m friends with quite a few of these bands, and even that’s not really enough to get me excited about warmed over Dinosaur Youth riffs.

Unlike those hundreds of other young Naomi Punks, this Naomi Punk just had their album The Feeling reissued by current ‘it’ label Captured Tracks, and according to the blurb being used to promote this particular show in the woods of Western Mass, they’ve been getting “positive press from Pitchfork, MTV Hive, and Fader, among others”. Maybe it’s just laziness on the part of the easily-stoked college kids who organized the show, but when the enticement to get me to go see a band is the amount of hype they’ve gotten by Pitchfork (which, as we all know, is never known for vague or hyperbolic writing), it doesn’t bode well for the promise of delivering the actual ROCK. The bottom line is that we’re in Amherst, dudes, and you can’t coast by on the 90s nostalgia buzz factor alone, especially when the real deal has such a strong legacy in my own backyard (just as the same could be said for Naomi Punk’s respective Olympia backyards). But I’m curious, I always enjoy the spectacle of bands playing in a college dining commons, and perhaps most importantly, the show is free, so here I am.

My thoughts as Naomi Punk play their first song (which I think is ‘The Spell’, but don’t quote me on that): It’s fine. Nothing about it is offensive, but nothing about it is inspiring, either. Unoriginal fuzzed-out indie guitar rock competently played by dudes with funny haircuts in over-sized T-shirts. I love plenty of bands that have mined that same formula to success (boy, do I ever), but the difference is that something like 20 years have passed since that might have been a novel concept, and with that much time between then and now, we’ve seriously had long enough to bring something extra to the table by this point. And I’m saying this as someone who was born in the mid-80s, so it’s not exactly like I was there for everything in the 90s the first time around, either. Sometimes when you remove things from their original context of place and time, you lose a lot in translation.

The second song they play doesn’t sound all that distinct from the first – same indecipherably echoed vocals, same gauzy grunge riff in a slightly different configuration that suggests a third generation photocopy of Nirvana. I think it might have been ‘Burned Body’, but I honestly couldn’t really tell the difference between that one and ‘The Spell’.

Whatever the song is called, by the end of it, both of their guitarists (they don’t have a bassist) have broken strings, and thus begins an awkward 10-minute diversion while said strings are changed. Their singer/guitarist apologizes because he’s lost his voice, and because they usually have “interludes” that keep him from having to talk between songs. If the one “interlude” they used between the first and second song is any indication, this just means recordings of phone calls about lost cats seen on neighborhood reward posters. While I doubt we’re missing out on anything due to the absence of further interludes, in retrospect, the lost cat sample might have been the most original moment in their entire set.

Strings are eventually replaced, and Naomi Punk play their third song, which sounds awfully like the first and second songs (I’ve sort of given up trying to pin names to their songs at this point – pick one at random and it’s probably not too far off base). By the beginning of the fourth song, strings are broken again, and the band calls it quits, saying that the abbreviated set will be a “teaser” for the next time they come through town. Yeah guys, I know I’m personally super-motivated for that one. Dear bands with a tendency to break guitar strings with any sort of regularity – have extras on hand, OK? Or better yet, have another guitar on hand, so your audience doesn’t have to spend more time waiting for you to change your strings than they have watching your entire set up until that point. Total momentum killer, assuming there was even momentum in the first place.

As underwhelming as Naomi Punk’s set had been, watching the whole thing fizzle out after a grand total of about 15 minutes of music being played was kind of fitting, as if the proceedings had been punctuated with the equivalent of an unenthusiastic shrug – if you’re going to be doing the 90s-praising indie guitar rock thing, that shit had better at least be head-bangable. Meanwhile, all I can think is, “Why this band?” Other than getting picked up by a fairly hot-shit indie label, what sets Naomi Punk apart from the legions of other bands comprised of boys with funny haircuts in over-sized T-shirts bowing down at the altar of 120 Minutes circa 1992?

They’re not particularly hooky, their live show is not engaging in the least, and this cloud of unshakeable generic sameness hangs over every song. A lot of kids who were born in-or-around the 90s are likely the ones most responsible for the “positive press” the band has received, whether it’s due to that era being the current popular touchstone for cultural homage, or simply the fact that being tolerable and competent is enough to warrant hyperbolic praise in music publications largely staffed by young 20-something journalism graduates.

We’re in Amherst, dudes. Or Olympia. Or whatever town your musical heroes were from. You need to do better than this.

Related posts: Song of the day – 536: Naomi Punk

10 Responses to Naomi Punk and Misplaced 90s Nostalgia

  1. matthew November 27, 2012 at 1:46 am

    no no no Erika, your’re so silly! It’s infinitely better then the acoustic garble Mascis is farting out these days. And the songs sound the same because you’re not used to them, just like all death metal songs sound the same to a virgin listener

  2. Erika Elizabeth November 27, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Saying the songs sound the same because I’m not used to them is a little condescending, no? Like my ears aren’t sophisticated enough to differentiate between songs that I listened to over & over when I got home in an attempt to familiarize myself with them. How many times am I supposed to hear them before they’re not samey sounding to me? That’s kind of a weird thing to expect of your audience. Yeah, there’s kind of superficial differences, but not enough to really set one song apart from another. I mean, really – I have enough Fall & Stereolab records to know that songs sounding the same doesn’t automatically make them bad, but it can make them boring, in this case. PS. Mascis is largely boring now – you won’t get any argument from me there.

  3. Jim November 27, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    I’m with you Erika. For better or worse we’re cursed as we get older to have a larger slab of the past cast a harrowing context-shadow over our experience of what the newer bands are presenting as fresh. Younger ears don’t know any better initially. Fans AND musicians. Maybe they don’t even care but hopefully some of those that do will explore the landscape backwards and find those occasional touchstone moments where things really were in transition and exciting. Stereolab fans? Meet Neu! Rock history, when I was in college, was only a couple decades in. Now it’s vast. And while every generation has a right to its own age-similar artists, it does all start to look and sound a little silly as I get older.

  4. UnContainuhDrivuh November 27, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    i find the fact he thinks that virgins can’t tell the difference between death metal songs just silly. i mean most folks who listen to death metal live in their parents basements so the odds they are virgins might be rather pretty high.

  5. Daniel November 28, 2012 at 1:11 am

    I suppose, just as much of the 90’s was about the rise of compact discs, the resurgence of 90’s alternative can give us all an opportunity to buy shit we’ve already heard AGAIN!

    All of that said, this is a great (and depressing) review.

  6. Bob December 8, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    your review sucks, and so do you.

  7. Erika Elizabeth December 9, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Erika, you totally got it. The thing I found most frustrating about this show was watching a band who had likely gotten paid a completely offensive amount of money to play a college-sponsored show to room full of kids & then basically dicked around with a half-assed, unenthusiastic set. Let me say as someone who regularly books & plays shows myself, it’s REALLY difficult to get people to go to shows these days. I’ve put together way too many shows for bands who have traveled thousands of miles to be there, who are are putting a ton of energy & inspiration into what they’re doing, only to have five or six people show up & hang out in the back of the room. Somehow, those bands have still played sets that made it seem like they actually gave a shit & those bands won’t get half the attention/media buzz that Naomi Punk have for just showing up & going through the motions – that’s depressing to me.

  8. Aaron Read December 9, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    Hi Erika, while I recognize and appreciate your immediate (and strong) response to Naomi Punk’s live set as a response in itself, I must say it seems as though you are making quite a few assumptions about NP and their live show. I had the chance to play with them in Vancouver and it was one of the best live shows I’ve seen, even though their amp blew. Their set began and ended with visceral and punishing tones and vocals. The commitment to raw sonics and emphasis on stop start, repetitive rhythms speaks of a band distilling rock/grunge/pop/drone/noise tropes into a personalized a cohesive self aesthetic. One that shines in the affect presented by the group in their live show and studio recordings.

    I think your criticism on repetition and every song sounding like the next, could be looked at in a different light. Why do we need differentiation? Do you want a jammer, a slow song, an inspiring song? Do you need a taste of everything to feel in the presence of great art? If you dig a little deeper and consider what the band is doing versus what you think the band is trying to do (with the past) you could see the work in a much richer sphere (or not): Much of the artwork on the records are a series of collaged greys, there is an emphasis on brutal repetition, there is an emphasis on low/ dark tones but no bass player, the band presents the songs and the set in a performative nature ( I am looking at the youtube video here). One could consider these factors under the arch of minimalist means and subtle slow moving drone structures.

    Your argument of the tried trope of distant vocals is appropriate given the context of contemporary rock music ( as this effect is over used) but in the work of NP you have to consider the role of the voice in relation to the role of the sounds. And then consider the role of language in a space where words cannot be heard, and the subtleties of spoken “poetry” or lyrics is no match to the heavy conversation the dank spacial vibrations of a live venue have with the guitars and drums of Naomi Punk.

    As for the broken strings and lack of interludes. You caught them on an off night, their strings broke twice! Do you know how disappointing that is as a performer to have to fix your strings on stage? You might! It’s terrible. Also, the feeling of wanting to present your work and your art and instead having to deal with banal and stressful interruptions like equipment failure is awful.

    I think your idea of them being paid insane amount sof money to play a show and being totally unworthy is a bit exaggerated. It is quite difficult to make any money off of a tour, especially as a band who has just been signed and who had previously been doing it themselves. Once you consider costs, time, and energy to get everything working and together, you’re not walking out with bursting pockets!

    My computer is running low so I have to run. But I will be back. I would love to have some time to express myself in a less rushed manner to have perhaps a temporary dialogue about the set! Obviously i can’t do it for long and don’t really wanna be antagonistic. I just think the doods in Naomi Punk are really sincere, and are on to some really sensitive, considered, sincere, artful and above all authentic approaches to guitar based rock structuresque music! I realize we all have opinions ( the excuse of subjectivity) but I just don’t wanna see this band projected through the Jaded glossed over lens of where rock is at now, and why everyone loves the nineties so much. They deserve more than that!

    Talk soon maybe!

    AR

  9. Erika Elizabeth December 9, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    Hi Aaron,
    I totally understand that my opinion of this band is in the minority, which is part of the reason I decided to write this review. I hadn’t seen a single critical or even skeptical commentary of Naomi Punk, which is part of the reason why I was anticipating being moved by them way more than I was. As I mentioned, I’ve seen & heard a lot of bands (many of whom I consider to be awesome people & close friends of mine) doing something similar to Naomi Punk recently – they might all be really great, sincere people, but if the music isn’t exciting to me, I’m not going to give anyone a free pass. There’s just too much music out there that DOES move me for me to bump something from “decent & listenable” to unabashedly praise-worthy. I went to this show with zero set expectations (if anything, my expectations leaned toward the positive, after all of the glowing press I had read) & I walked away feeling totally unaffected.

    Repetition in music is not always a bad thing – I certainly don’t expect a band’s set to be evenly split amongst slow-burners, jammers, epics, etc. I mentioned above that I’m a big fan of both the Fall & Stereolab, two bands known for having songs that “all sound the same”. The difference as I see it is that the theme that you’re basing that repetition upon needs to be engaging in the first place – again, I recognize that this is a minority opinion, but Naomi Punk don’t do it for me in that department. If I’m seeing a band live, I’m not holding their record covers in my hands & analyzing their aesthetic motivations or theorizing why they opted to not have a bass player. The music & the performance has to be intriguing, on its own merits. Having several songs with extremely similar progressions & structures might be an artistic statement, but like with all art, that statement is open to the viewer’s interpretations & reactions.

    My academic background is in art history & it provides an appropriate parallel here – I find the work of minimalist artists like Agnes Martin & Frank Stella extremely powerful, but even more people in my department complained about that art being sterile & boring. On the other hand, the medieval & Renaissance art that they were passionate about studying had absolutely no emotional effect on me. Does that mean that I didn’t “understand” van Eyck or Michelangelo, or simply that a different kind of art strikes a chord with me? Reactions to art are both personal & subjective – I know that Titian & Botticelli are technically skilled, that they had specific intentions & motivations with their art, but I can’t change the fact that Renaissance paintings of Jesus absolutely nothing for me. Naomi Punk might have philosophical reasons for doing what they do, but to this outside observer, it didn’t connect.

    As for touring being difficult & not a money-making venture, of course it’s not! But this show was at one of the ten most expensive colleges in the United States, at a college-funded show. While I can’t confirm how much the band was paid to play there, it’s no secret that even on a tour that finds a band struggling to even break even, college-funded shows are notoriously known for paying out disproportionately high amounts of money from entertainment funds for on-campus student organizations. I attempted to book shows through the radio station at my (comparatively underfunded) public university while I was a student there & even “DIY” sorts of bands would routinely ask for the kinds of monetary guarantees that they would never ask for at the non-profit show space I also booked – that’s because the norm is for college shows to be paid for out of college money & typically why those shows are free or very low cost (this Naomi Punk show was free), because door charges/covers aren’t paying to fill the band’s gas tank.

    Playing three songs & then quitting because you broke too many strings certainly sucks, but it sucks more for the audience, who might have traveled a long distance to come see you play, or opted against going to a different show that night, etc. Responding to that situation by basically saying “Oh well, see y’all next time” (which isn’t entirely realistic coming from a band located on the opposite coast) rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve been going to shows for almost fifteen years, booking them for ten & playing them myself for a year – I’ve never seen a band break strings twice in the span of two songs. Maybe it was an off-night for them in that department, but if you’re known for being “visceral & punishing”, as you put it, having back-up strings seems like a no-brainer to me. I can’t write a review based on how their set MIGHT have gone, unfortunately.

    Anyway, I respect that you (and lots of other people!) have opinions at vary wildly from mine in terms of this band & I respect that you explained your stance without just telling me that I’m an idiot, in so many words. I do find it a little surprising that this critical review is such an anomaly – when I shared it with friends, several of them said they completely agreed with me, but in contrast, my examinations of Naomi Punk’s existing press online were across-the-board positive. So either most people are “getting it” aside from me & some of my friends, or the people who aren’t “getting it” just haven’t made their opinions known in writing online, or maybe a little of both. Whatever the case, I think having a dissenting opinion about your art speaks MUCH louder about your merits than having uniformly accepting commentary. Haven’t all of the most interesting artists historically been condemned or criticized at one point or another? It proves that your art is REAL, regardless of whether or not it is universally praised. When you send your art out into the void, if no one ever has anything critical to say, you’re probably not doing it right.

  10. Napps December 10, 2012 at 12:17 am

    Is there a NP lyric worth scribbling on my Trapper Keeper?
    And all you all should leave J. out of this….the new Dino Jr is full of jams…
    anyway…what’s a Buffalo Tom album going for on eBay these days?

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