Talkhouse Contributing Writer Zachary Lipez is the former singer for Freshkills and the current singer of Publicist UK. He writes the “Adult Problems” column for Noisey/VICE. He also contributes to Hazlitt, MySpace, and Vol.1 Brooklyn. His most recent book, with Nick Zinner and Stacey Wakefield, is Please Take Me Off the Guest List (Akashic Books, 2010). He tends bar at 124 Rabbit Club. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Why do some bands get critical attention while others do not? This is a rhetorical question, because to try to actually answer that is to descend into levels of cynicism and/or willful self-delusion into which even I, a man who revels in both, fear to tread. The simple fact is that I don’t know and I will definitely never fucking know. The fact that I see a million bands that sound like lesser versions, both in influence and execution, of Fist City get tons of press and that I’ve never seen any member of Fist City or their label’s public relations team in any bars/venues/DIY spaces that NYC writers frequent is, I’m sure, a coincidence. (It’s gotten plenty of press in the U.K. Presumably their PR agents there go to the correct bars.) Hell, I didn’t write about Fist City until now and their album Everything Is a Mess came out in June. For future reference, bands/PR agents, I hang out at Library Bar and Over the Eight. Buy me all the drinks, see what happens. Fireballs grant you access but don’t guarantee positive reviews.
To be honest, I heard Everything Is a Mess a bit before it came out, and I wasn’t entirely sold. I’d been fond of Fist City’s earlier releases: last year’s It’s 1983, Grow Up! was a solid-as-hell collection of surfy angst-bombs that scratched a low-fidelity Agent Orange need nicely. But their new album, on first few listens, sounded like Sonic Youth. I realize I’m in the minority, but I don’t dig Sonic Youth (though I admit that half of 1988’s Daydream Nation is killer and that video where the two alterna-teens stage dive together was cute), and the only thing I dig less than Sonic Youth is bands that sound like Sonic Youth. So I filed Fist City away in my “oh well” pile and moved on to writing mean tweets about my social betters. Not to harp on the insider baseball tedium of the reviewer’s “craft,” but there’s a lesson here about the pressures of having to write about albums after only a short amount of time, because during a recent particularly slow shift at the bar, I put on …Is a Mess again and was like, “I’m a fucking idiot.” Sure, they like Sonic Youth, but this album rules anyway.
Fist City, maybe named after the amazing Loretta Lynn song or maybe after Richmond, Virginia’s crusty bequeathed nickname or maybe neither, is from Lethbridge, Alberta and is made up of twins Kier (vocals and guitar) and Brittany (vocals and bass) Griffiths as well as Evan Van Reekum (guitar) and Ryan Grieve (drums). They’ve been around since 2009 but appeared on my radar a couple years ago thanks to a nod from my consumer guide, Maximumrocknroll. MRR is good because it likes good bands early and then stops liking them when they appear on the same continent as a can of Sprite or whatever, and then culture vultures such as I can safely move in and like them. Then there’s usually a backlash where writers/casual online commenters who just found out about a band who have been struggling and engaging in the work of rock for years accuse said band of being “hyped up.” (See: White Lung.) It’s an unwinnable, soul-crushing cycle for artists and, God willing, it will happen for Fist City. Good bands deserve to eat.
I haven’t even talked about the music yet. What the fuck is wrong with me. So, Everything Is a Mess is perhaps best described as no-wave surf-punk album. The album was ably produced at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio Studios by Talkhouse contributor Ben Greenberg (who at this point, with his extensive resume of noise-rock production, is the Steve Albini I Don’t Talk Shit About Because I Run into Him at the Bar Too Often). Greenberg and the band know that when you have a dynamic drummer, it’s important that every hit is audible without making the album sound like an exercise in Foo Fighters-esque compression oppression. The SY comparisons lie in the rhythm guitars, where there’s a discordant strum of rust never sleeping rather than the chugga-chugga of hardcore/metal or anything that could be described prosaically as “riffs.” That’s not a complaint, really (the guitar and the bass do what they’re supposed to: interplay entertainingly and organically and get us where we need to go, be it the end of a cigarette or a kiss), and anyway, the surf leads brighten the endeavor to the point that that’ll be the second-to-last of my surely-tiresome-to-the-band Sonic Youth comparisons. The vocals (both of the twins) are the thing that I initially disliked and now love. I rolled my eyes when they reminded me of Kim Gordon’s (no, seriously, last one I swear) monotone distance, made peace with them having inflective similarities with Christian Death’s Rozz Williams, and then, once I remembered the existence of Dan O’Mahony (of No for an Answer and, uh, probably not an influence…but maybe! Hell, let’s throw in Amanda MacKaye in there for good measure), I was entirely on board. The songs are about hating cops (“Fuck Cops,” “Rat’s”), cruising around on various modes of transportation associated with disliking authority (cars, bikes and walking, in the songs “Hey Little Sister” and “Bad Trip”), and basically feeling the doom of both State and existence crushing down on them to the point where just “hanging around” is resistance. If you like Cometbus (and you should), the record is like every caffeine-stained page of it crammed into three-minute party dirges.
There are brief interludes too. They are called “Interlude” I-V. I don’t know why they are there, but they’re not hurting anybody.
It should be mentioned that if anyone DJs the instrumental “Surf’s Up” into the Chills’ “Pink Frost” (1984), they should let me know and I’ll tell them they’re smart and awesome via social media.
I’m not going to lie; a lot of what I like about this record is what I’ve always (for the purposes of this article) liked most about punk. Not the posturing (though I like that) or dress (obviously into that too), but the weird Bay Area or ’80s NYC ideal: a bunch of stick-and-poke malcontents crammed into a house with appalling plumbing, smoking cigarettes for sport and making some mutant version of the records on their shelves. Fist City make surf music for when the ocean is a styrofoam cup filled with other styrofoam cups and punk music for a time when your punk PR agent better have an apartment in Bushwick. So, you know, it’s not exactly hopeful music. But one of my favorite songs has always been “Razors” (1991) by the Bay Area’s Monsula (and covered by Cringer), where another upbeat-music-for-down-times band sang “Razors never die!” Fist City feels a lot like that, and when they sing “Oh yeah, oh yeah, losers live forever…just like dirt,” that’s as good as an affirmation as we can probably hope for. I’ll take it.