Punks find their inner Americana

The altered aesthetic of punks playing folk
By JON MEYER  |  August 31, 2007


Gabel, Gabel, hey! Against Me!’s new wave of political punk. By Franklin Soults
Against Me! has become quite the little hype machine these days. With a weirdly-received major-label debut and a recent incarceration, it’s all become a little tabloidy, don’t you think?  As one of the most prominent bands to popularize the folk-punk sound, the Florida-based quartet should be no stranger to controversy. But that down-home Guthrie-esque nature seems farther and farther away. How’d those lyrics go to Against Me!’s “What We Worked For”?  “And may the likes of this song never make one fucking dollar / Leave it for a demo tape to be played until it’s broken / Then remembered only for what it was”?  Now, the band is noted for what it’s not: not acoustic anymore, not entirely DIY, not living in a dumpster, blah blah blah… 

Needless to say, it’s getting boring. And if you need to give your Sellout-Police siren a break, look to an alternative within the folk-punk pantheon. Not folk-punk itself ― those jangly chords and ratatat drums, early-Dylan lyrics if the man got his ideas from Crass instead of Woody Guthrie. Rather, I’m talking a horse of an entirely different hair color: punks playing folk. Acoustic guitar, tapping foot, harmonica. Base human condition in 4/4 time. On seven-inch, dude!  These are less artists existing within a specified crossover, more examples of an altered aesthetic: lone punk-rock troubadours cast aside and stripped down to their roots.

Punk groups aren’t noted for longevity. The Sex Pistols were together for like five minutes and people still talk about them (for better or worse). So when a band calls it quits or goes on hiatus, the frontman has every reason to soldier on solo, picking up essentially where the group might have left off (think Joe Strummer, Henry Rollins, Joey Ramone, God bless ’em all). But it’s gone the other way too. Sure, something was lost when lead New York Dolls swaggerer David Johansen embarrassed himself as pompadoured crooner Buster Poindexter, but if you look at Paul Westerberg, who went solo after the tumultuous demise of the Replacements by folking up the same Salinger-esque musings that his iconic band often thrashed their way though, something becomes clear: stripped down rock can best resurface as stripped-down musical poetry, music of the people.

When the gravelly post-hardcore howl of Gainesville’s much-loved Hot Water Music echoed away in 2005, singer-guitarist Chuck Ragan thought it best to focus on family life while the band’s three remaining members went on to form the Draft. Personal, acoustic tunes written for friends and family (“Symmetry” for his wife Jill, “Congratulations Joe” for his father-in-law) became Ragan’s new artistic endeavor. A half-dozen EPs, a live album, and a new studio record (Feast or Famine, released this month on Side One Dummy) have since surfaced. Hot Water Music was brash and raw and emotive, taking cues from short-lived D.C. hardcore vets like Embrace with a kind of fiery, humid disposition to match their hometown. “Rooftops,” the band’s very best song, resonates with a chorus that’s as big, fat, and epically simple as it is coated in unabashed sincerity: “Hey world, are you listening / listening to me?”  They were tortured tough-guys answering life’s big questions, the Charles Bukowskis of punk (they take their name from one of the author’s later books). But Ragan’s solo material is more like Raymond Carver, a little more removed, a little quieter, a little closer to home, songs with a slice-of-life approach to their inherent storytelling.  Here, the “wrath of consequence comes knocking on that old front door” instead of tearing it down. Ragan’s guttural growl still rumbles like tires on a dirt-road, but with a single acoustic guitar and a lot of passion, it’s like the guy has found his inner Americana. And feels a whole lot happier for it.

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