Friday, June 3, 2011

Parasites- Punch Lines (Shredder, 1993)

For a man of 40, I’ve had a relatively small number of “favorite bands” in my lifetime. When I was 10, my favorite band was AC/DC. At 15, I was rockin’ with Dokken. At 21, I was all about Nirvana. The lengthiest favorite band reign of my lifetime belongs to the Dimestore Haloes, who were “my” group from 1998 until they disbanded at some undetermined point in the early to mid 2000s. The title has remained vacant ever since. In between, there were others like Judas Priest (my seventh grade year) and Bad Religion (the year after college). And I’ll never forget those years – circa ’96-’97 – when the Parasites were my #1.

Along with Screeching Weasel, The Queers, the Beatnik Termites, Green Day, and the Mr. T. Experience, the Parasites were the cream of the crop of ‘90s pop-punk. Originally formed in New Jersey in 1985, the Parasites became more or less a one-man show when Dave “Nikki Parasite” MacKenzie relocated to Berkeley, California in the early ‘90s. Working with a revolving door of supporting players, MacKenzie recorded two albums for the indie imprint Shredder: Punch Lines and Pair. The latter was primarily comprised of songs that had originally appeared on the band’s 1990 debut Pair of Sides. For years, I insisted that the punkier Pair was by far the superior album. Although I liked Punch Lines, I contended that it was “overproduced” and sounded “like an Elton John record”. It’s easy for me to understand why I felt that way then. I was a young man – 25, 26 years of age. I was a dyed in the wool “punk rocker” with a closet full of Clash t-shirts and a bedroom floor littered with Maximum Rocknroll back issues. Punch Lines, for all of its merits, did not deliver the buzzsaw guitars and stripped-to-the-bones simplicity I craved in pop-punk music. But as the years passed and I came to value musical substance over musical style, I completely fell in love with Punch Lines. It’s not even close – Punch Lines is the best Parasites album, and to boot one of the ten greatest pop-punk albums of all-time.

Perhaps because MacKenzie played everything but drums on the album, Punch Lines has the feel of a solo record. Although the obvious influences (Descendents, Buzzcocks) contribute to the general musical approach, the album is the distinctive work of a truly unique artist. True enough: MacKenzie has always been a genre traditionalist, and no one is better at crafting simple, catchy pop-punk songs. But no other pop-punk album has ever sounded quite like Punch Lines, which derives its character from MacKenzie’s plaintive vocals and brilliantly heartrending lyrics. If Punch Lines really is a concept album, the concept is not hard to grasp: love’s a bitch! The man once told me that he wrote songs because it was a lot cheaper than paying a therapist to listen to his problems. And judging by the lyrical tone of Punch Lines, he must have suffered through some serious relationship woes prior to writing these songs. I had suffered through some serious relationship woes of my own around the time I bought the album, so it’s easy to see why Punch Lines connected with me. The record affirmed my views on love – and probably influenced them going forward.

While typical pop-punk music of the day addressed the ups and downs of teenage romance, Parasites songs spoke of far more complicated adult love. Punch Lines recounts the less pleasant aspects of grown-up relationships: the inevitable dysfunction and subsequent betrayals, the torture of loving someone who doesn’t love you back, the neurotic over-analysis of what went wrong, the dark cloud of obsession looming over new love, the agony of loss and the hole it creates in your heart, the bitter realization that what started out so promising could have ended in heartbreak and despair, and through it all, the optimism to believe that no matter how many times love fucks you over, it’s going to finally work out next time. By turns pitch dark (“Dead Roses”), hopeful (“When I’m Here With You”), cathartic (“Letdown”), stalkerish (“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”), bitter (“I Don’t Believe You”), and bizarrely upbeat (“Crazy”), the relationship theme plays out with all the poignancy, humor, and high drama of a cinematic love story. If they ever make a Broadway musical out of Punch Lines, I’m first in line for tickets.

Perhaps a fair criticism of Punch Lines would be that its best tracks outshine the rest. The funny, self deprecating “Young and Stupid” is just about the greatest pop-punk tune there’s ever been. And album opener “Crazy” is simply an extraordinary song – a touching tale of two very imperfect individuals who nonetheless make a perfect match (“I met you in emergency/You rolled right by on your way back from shock therapy/I knew that you were meant for me/I loved the way you moved/Even though you moved involuntarily”). Also meriting classic status in the annals of pop-punk is the peppy and impossibly catchy “When I’m Here With You”. But while the rest of the album may suffer slightly by comparison, it's still really freaking good. The likes of “Someday”, “The Next Time”, and “Nothing At All” are solid tunes on their own and crucial components of the album as a whole. And “Letdown”, for all of its dragging instrumental bloat, is the epic closer the album needs. While not quite a “happy” ending, the song brings closure to the artist’s suffering. A page is turned, and our protagonist lives to love another day.

The optimist in me was sometimes tempted to re-program the CD so that it would end happily with “Crazy”. But deep down I knew it was pointless. Punch Lines is supposed to be a bummer – the kind of record you listen to when you’re going through some major shit and need company for your misery. You listen to this guy spill his guts about how much his love life sucks, and it makes you feel better. The album sure got me through some rough times. Today at a considerably happier point in my life, I hope to never again require its consolation. But Punch Lines will always be a favorite of mine. The 25-year-old me may have been mostly full of shit, but he had fine taste in music.

-Josh Rutledge

23 comments:

gunther said...

I owned Compost at one time. Played it once or twice before giving it away. Probably not their best starting point, huh?

Rutledge said...

Definitely not. Punch Lines and Pair (both out of print) are the essentials, and Compost is for the diehard fan only. It's got some ace tracks like "Top Secret" and "Something to Hold Onto", but way too many filler-type cover songs, which was never the band's strong suit.

gunther said...

Heard "Crazy" for the first time this morning. Ace.

Shawn Abnoxious said...

For some reason while reading this all i thought of was the crucifucks and where i put their cd...

Never really was a Parasites fan, but really at some time or other i bellieve EVERYONE was a Screeching Weasel fan...

gunther said...

I played SW's Kill The Musicians last night. Pretty damn solid, save for the Patsy cover. Johnny Nash fared way better.

Rutledge said...

I too was a huge Screeching Weasel fan. This was circa late '94 into early '95....probably the band and scene that propelled me into doing a zine in the first place. Then when SW broke up (the first time), I ended up gravitating to the Parasites. Those were the days!

Shawn Abnoxious said...

Wow Ruts, didnt know they held such a spot with you. Thats really cool. I was personally really inspired by zines MASS REVOLT, SLUG & LETTUCE as well as a local zine by a great guy named HOPE & DESPERATION to do a zine... The first zine I done with Jules was called MOVEMENT which was named from a song bt PENETRATION (because I thought all music zines were named from songs ala SNIFFIN'GLUE, SEARCH & DESTROY)

gunther said...

Dirty Sheets is named after a song.

Rutledge said...

If I do another blog (which I might since you might as well manage five blogs if you're going to manage four), I would probably name if after a song - or I could get all literary and name it after some element of a dystopian novel. Ever notice all the punk/new wave references to "Brave New World"? The Feelies, the Vapors' "Lenina", Buzzcocks' "Everybody's Happy Nowadays"...You could go on and on.

Shawn Abnoxious said...

On and on til' the break of dawn...

(I love saying that)

I have been contemplating a blog for quite sometime... Something that would resemble a mix of DS and RUNG except more pictures from my flickr account... i have a couple good names i like... but i dunno. Im not sure if the world needs me blogging.

gunther said...

In the words of the Pink Fairies: "DO IT!" Josh, what was the name of your blog/journal that existed for about five minutes? You did it at the back end of NWM.

Shawn Abnoxious said...

NOW WAVE was the shit! Highy insirational stuff. Love the name too

Rutledge said...

Can't seem to recall what I called that web site...I did it from November 2004 to April 2005 while NWM was briefly "retired". The new thing would theoretically be like the old, pre-Now Wave Pee Pee, where I was doing non-music essays and record reviews under the same umbrella. I loved it how people thought I stole the Now Wave name from some shit-ass no wave compilation, when in fact I stole it from a major label promo EP that had the Paul Collins Beat on it!

gunther said...

How many times did I see a quote from you attributed to "No Wave Magazine"? Sometimes I think literacy is a thing of the past.

Rutledge said...

Thinking of calling the new blog Legion of Boom. Surely someone will refer to it as "Legion of Doom" at some point. Then again, I'll be happy if it's referred to at all.

Rutledge said...

Cancel that- seems "Legion of Boom" is a Crystal Method album title. Don't want to get confused with that bullshit!

gunther said...

Take your time with the name. It will come to you.

Rutledge said...

Decided to go with Faster and Louder. Needed something that both described my mission and referenced the "taste profile" I'm targeting.

gunther said...

I like it, of course. Don't think there's a Crystal Method tune by that name.

Shawn Abnoxious said...

Sounds good Josh. FASTER LOUDER is an awesome name. Be sure to tell me when its up and running OK? I will cruise there as you may imagine...

Also, Back-In-The-Day™ I had no idea where you got NOW WAVE from... Maybe I knew and just forgot, but I thought you made it up... But its all good. Cant wait to see FASTER LOUDER... Really digging that name the more I realize it...

gunther said...

Need a blog name? Bracketize. It'll make sense later.

Shawn Abnoxious said...

Bracketize makes sense now!!!!!!!!!

or soon...

Sadly, No! Research Labs said...

"But as the years passed and I came to value musical substance over musical style, I completely fell in love with Punch Lines."

I love seeing that! 'Punch Lines' was a hard record to produce. (I produced it.) Dave didn't have a band at that point, and was doing three times the normal amount of work -- while I was basically fighting with Dave around the clock to make up for his indifference to audio quality and details in general.

I think a lot of the songs ended up at about 80% of potential. That's not bad, but there's a certain ideal that you want to reach, etc. Dave never wrote just one great song at a time -- he'd have bursts of like four or six. Many never really got finished before he moved on to the next burst. I think that's more visible here than in other Parasites records.

Anyway, I've been interested in this album again for the past couple of weeks, and I'm kind of dumbfounded that we were able to record most of 'Punch Lines,' plus the standout tracks on 'Pair,' in one low-budget semi-marathon at a local studio.

The standard major-label studio budget at the time was $75,000. I think the grand total of this session plus the earlier Crazy/When I'm Here With You/Die Trying/Whatever-that-other-song-is session was about $4,000.

And it was over budget. Damn.