There’s a small but important distinction in the context of rock ‘n’ roll between losing one’s nasty aggressive side and losing one’s edge. Take for example, the difference between Thunderbirds Are Now!, one of the more riotous bands of the decade, and their disappointing successor in the Friendly Foes, a side project of Ryan Allen.
Actually, we should go back another degree. Thunderbirds Are Now! were one of the closest things the aughts had to the psychotic hard-rock smart-assery that came with the Dwarves in the ’90s, and which largely began in response to John Zorn’s Naked City. Both those acts were promulgated by regular pissants who tackled all notions of rock decency and pomposity in the grand Jon Spencerian anti-rock traditon. Thunderbirds Are Now!, however were not anti-rock, nor were they particularly angry. Instead, they took their predecessors’ schizophrenia and made it fun, producing two of the best party albums for the deranged this decade.
So with Thunderbirds Are Now!, the aggression was removed, but the edge — which I will define as what made the music interesting — was retained. With the Friendly Foes, however, that edge has been removed for a fruitless pursuit of pop. The Friendly Foes are certainly easier to listen to than Thunderbirds, but they’re a hell of a lot less satisfying and engaging. The resulting album, Born Radical, is a deeply misguided pop experiment that not only fails to accomplish anything noteworthy, but even fails at basic indie-pop songwriting, be it bubblegum or Superchunk.
It’s by no means unprecedented for a quirky indie musician to abruptly make a pure pop recording (and I’m not talking about the legendary “discoveries” of melodic songwriting by Hüsker Dü or Sonic Youth). The Minutemen’s Project: Mersh is one of the more famous examples, but there’s also parallels to Yo La Tengo’s Fakebook or Le Tigre’s debut album. In those cases, the transformation worked because the artists were unflinching in their devotion to pop, and subtext of what they were saying was at least as interesting as what they had done before. With the Friendly Foes, however, Ryan Allen can’t commit to the pure pop that his bandmates had produced with Kiddo. Born Radical is about 95 percent pop with occasional freak flourishes that only end up cheapening the overall product.
Allen could have either gone the experimental route and inserted these quirks more frequently, created an intermitten freak/melody dynamic, or he could have gone for the hybrid route and combined melodic pop songwriting while not losing his style. It’s a hard thing to do, but it’s arguable that he’d already done it; Thunderbirds Are Now!’s Justamustache was more melodic than its batshit insane predecessor, Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief, yet still maintained the crazy factor in one of those hybrids that only truly gifted rockers can produce. Allen’s work with Born Radical, however, shows the dangers in rock of lacking the courage in your convictions.
Based on its music alone, Born Radical would just be an interesting failure. But it runs into ethic dubiousness when you take into account the lyrics. Most of the songs on the album talk about the grim realities of Genereation X/Y music fans — succumbing to a bourgeois lifestyle, needing to sound more pop, not being content with a simple mixtape, an overload of bands and an irrationally fast wave of hype. These are all true, but they’re hardly original thoughts. The way Allen writes them, it makes it seem like he’s going to generation spokesman status, which perhaps explains why he toned down his crazy side.
Allen may not have that kind of intention or that big of an ego, but all the signs of that kind of posturing — becoming poppier, making grand lyrical statements, reek on Born Radical. After hearing what Allen has been occupying himself with without Thunderbirds Are Now!, I can only conclude he’s either deeply naïve, wholly self-absorbed, or simply in an unimaginative rut (or perhaps some combination of those three). Either way, he was better off as the fun crazy guy.