Moreso than in other genres, pop-punk bands tend to get stuck. Bands can find popularity within that punk cohort, but most of them have trouble breaking out to wider audiences. If that oh-so-vague umbrella term “indie rock” is inclusive by design, slippery in its definition and thus (seemingly) open to a wide breadth of sounds, pop-punk seems regimented and single-minded in comparison. It’s a sound that carries a long-standing and unwavering devotion to the quick, crashing drums, to the crunch of the perfectly titled power chord, to the sneering ethos of those who feel ignored or cast off or just plain pissed.
Whether this ghetto is self-applied or inflicted upon pop-punk, it does mean that larger audiences miss out on bands that really should thrive outside of that limited scope. Case in point: Lagwagon. The scene is indebted to these guys, for sure, as the first band signed to the influential Fat Wreck label, and as long-running punk stalwarts, they are an example of everything right about punk rock. But what makes the band worth talking about is that they’re so much more than that. Lagwagon is not a great punk band. It’s a great band, period. Over the course of the first five albums, the group honed its sound from the speed-metal precision of their early sound to some intricate and deeply catchy pop sensibilities. Lagwagon always had its own sound — one that may sound typical now, but only because others have aped it and watered it down — but the band allowed it to grow and change over time. Now that Fat Wreck has reissued the group’s ’90s output, it’s worth looking back at that progression, because it reveals a band that both defines a genre and is far too dynamic to be contained by it.
The first record is a curious set. Cape’s tuneful bleat is set to a half-shrief, half-growl, and the band’s got a darker edge that it slowly but surely shakes off over the next four records. But the album’s nods to hardcore and metal, combined in quickly shifting songs that often stopped on a dime and were armed to the teeth with surgical guitar shredding. The record, from the opening power of “Tragic Vision” to the rumbling “Beer Goggles,” offered a dark counterpoint to the goofball charm of NOFX and their ilk. Of course, to hear their take on “Bad Moon Rising” and the now-classic “Mr. Coffee” is to know these guys were in no worry of taking themselves too seriously. Duh is an interesting starting point, since it introduces us to the band’s unique charms, but it also presents a series of sounds the band would leave behind in favor of more intricate textures.
If Duh relied on riffage, Trashed gives us the same shredding, but also gives us a much more infectious set of tunes. To compare “Island of Shame” with “Tragic Vision,” we can hear the turns still come on a dime, but the riffs are tighter, more rooted to deep hooks, and Cape’s voice takes on its full power here, turned away from the strident shouting of the first record to something subtler around the edges, and his delivery makes these songs shine. The college-rock send up “Know It All,” for example, is the kind of song that should be a hit, amongs punks and beyond. You can see their confidence growing on this record, and though there’s jokey moments, the band plays it straight when they cover Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Rather than shrugging through it (like they do on “Bad Moon Rising”), they power their way through it with clear-eyed conviction. Trashed is considered by many their crowning achievement, and even 18 years later that is pretty hard to argue with. The band still has that signature angularity, but you’ll hum along with these songs more than you’ll bang your head to them. If Duh was about brute force, Trashed is about a more sophisticated attack, and Lagwagon pulls it off perfectly.
With that cover picture of Bonanza’s Hoss Cartwright (played by Dan Blocker), you’d be forgiven for thinking Lagwagon had drifted too far into winking irony. Instead, Hoss is a heartfelt and (mostly) serious record, one that further tightens the hooks from Trashed into a set that may be more consistent than its classic counterpart. One thing that kept Cape and company fresh for so many years is that they never fell into whining about girls. If pop-punk is dismissed by outsiders as being juvenile, Lagwagon is the counterpoint, a band of adults making music for, well, other adults. So even when they address relationships, on the brilliant “Violins,” it’s with an eye for detail and an ability to articulate the complications of personal politics. And if that sounds dry on the page, it doesn’t in the songs. From the off-kilter bass that opens “Move the Car” to the spacious break down on “Bombs Away” to the start-and-stop riffs of “Rifle,” Lagwagon is at its slippery best on Hoss. The songs still cut deep, but the group doesn’t pack those wounds with simplified politics or sappy sentiments. Even when the guys goof off, on “Razorburn” say, it rings true. They earn the joke because they’re not constantly pandering to us. So you can laugh off that cover all you want, the music on Hoss isn’t something you can dismiss so easily.
Double Plaidinum (1997)
Double Plaidinum — the first record with drummer Dave Raun and only one with guitar Ken Stringfellow (from the Posies) — is a more streamlined appoach. The shifting time signatures and quick turns are toned down here in favor of blistering power chords charging ahead. This may seem to play against their strengths, but the one-two punch of “Alien 8” and the moody “Making Friends” argues otherwise. The band doesn’t simplify here so much as let that which does not matter slide, and at this point Lagwagon had the sharply honed pop sensibilities to pull this off. Though these songs don’t jar us with the same shifts — those staccato chords in the middle of “Today” are about as surprising at the album gets — it still catches you off guard because you don’t miss them. At all. Songs like “One Thing to Live” and “Bad Scene” don’t need curve balls to keep us honest, because we’re locked in from word one. The hooks — here more runs of chords than the slicing chops of earlier records — set themselves deep right away, and though the record speeds by, it leaves its mark. Double Plaidinum was a critical point for the band, shifting to the intricacy of Raun’s drumming and away from former guitarist Shawn Dewey’s riff stylings. Here the band’s sound lightens, takes on more pop bliss, but never feels fey. It may not surprise as much as Hoss or Trashed, but that doesn’t mean it can’t hit just as hard.
Let’s Talk About Feelings (1998)
The band’s last album from the ’90s — and first before a hiatus was announced — is also their most polished. Opener “After You My Friend” plays like a synthesis of the band’s first six years. The riffs slice, the song shifts and starts and stops, and Cape’s intricate vocal melody and 50-cent-word-laden lyrics weave through it all perfectly. That and “May 16” later in the record bookend a set of songs that continue the direct charge they started on Double Plaidinum. But Feelings gets really interesting later in the record, with the brief acoustic interlude “The Kids Are All Wrong” and closer “Owen Meaney.” The band, and Cape in particular, always gave away a wide variety of musical interests and here we see them explore them more fully. “The Kids Are All Wrong” isn’t the only quick acoustic tune on a punk record, but it’s the best and most fully realized. The piano pinging in the background provides subtle atmosphere to the song so that you realize it isn’t tossed off at all. It’s a shift that clears out all the propulsive energy of the middle of the record so we’re fresh for the more intricate “May 16.” “Owen Meaney,” on the other hand, is downright cinematic. It’s lengthy instrumental opening builds tension in a way we hadn’t heard from the band before. It wasn’t about the immediate punch, it was about ebb and flow. The crunch of the guitars softened, and there’s something fittingly withful about the track. It’s a more nuanced take on the band’s sound and a welcome shift, one that completes the ’90s story of the band well. We started with those hard-hitting riffs, that metal edge, and over five albums the band shifted to a more patient sound without losing an ounce of power.
All this is to say that these albums are all great in their own right, perfect pop-punk documents that never slip into navel-gazing or feel generic even when they seem to be following all those punk-rock rules. But taken together — and these reissues are chock full of extras, unreleased songs and b-sides that are remarkably consistent — these albums show Lagwagon as something more than just a great pop-punk band. They’re a band worth re-evaluating with a larger scope, one that puts them in a context more suited to their intricate sound. Lagwagon was a genre trailblazer because the band stretched and challenged that genre, it made us look at and listen to punk rock in a different way. These are pop songs. They’re rock songs. They’re sweet. They’re difficult. They’re funny. They’re heartbreaking. They do so much more than just speed through on three chords. And all those other things they do — the variety of talent the band displays, its combination of pop hooks and shifting structures, Cape’s great songwriting — those are the things more of us should be talking about.