After all, it’s rather difficult to completely disavow a consumerist establishment when one relies on said establishment for one’s livelihood, no?
Mind you, this (somewhat) reformed worldview is not meant as a flat-out rejection of punk, neither as a musical genre nor as an ethos. Rather, it’s a rejection of the oft-flawed idea of what it means to be “punk” in the first place: how many listeners, performers, and adherents, especially the young and impressionable, often latch onto the fashionable rebelliousness and anti-authoritarian posturing of punk while disregarding its underlying (and far more important) emphasis on community-building and self-reliance—who focus on finding and attacking “Them” rather than reaching out and helping “Us”—as if the desolate void created by total destruction were any more desirable than the flawed structure it replaced.
This is an important distinction to make, and an ultimately necessary one. Especially if young punks ever hope to think of their genre-cum-lifestyle as anything other than overdriven three-chord riffs and frantic mosh pits, Xeroxed ‘zines and hand-drawn show posters, home-made patches, badges, and safety pins, tattoos and piercings, liberty spikes and studs. Something more than reflexive nihilism, pointless vandalism, and layabout vagrancy, black flags and circled A’s, “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the UK”. That is: to be able to embrace the transformative and transgressive spirit of punk without being held bound or turned off by its crusty curmudgeonliness, penchant for self-destruction, ironically militant non-conformism, and well-advertised anti-commercialism
Which is why latter-day punk bands like The Taxpayers are so very important. With roots in the squats and basements of Portland, Oregon—as well as a catalogue of songs which draw heavily upon themes of poverty, abuse, homelessness, and wanderlust—The Taxpayers seem readymade to embody that perpetually rebellious, self-immolating spirit so integral to punk-rock. But rather than turn all of that pent-up frustration into harsh invectives aimed at the Man, the State, Society, the Military-Industrial Complex, or whatever vaguely-defined boogeyman du jour it’s fashionable to rebel against these days, The Taxpayers craft deeply personal blues- and folk-inspired narratives that have more in common with the day-to-day trials of the long-suffering everyman than the agitprop pamphlets of the urban revolutionary. Really, The Taxpayers are less inclined to wax poetic about fringe politics or class warfare than about painstaking self-reflection and gradual self-improvement. Their songs are about fostering hope in the face of hopelessness, not tearing down some nameless, faceless Evil Empire.
Admittedly, it might not sound all that hopeful at first blush. As in the likes of “We are the Hellhounds”, “Everybody Does a Little Cocksucking”, “Healthcare”, “Never Getting Warm”, “No Lodging for the Mad”, “Militaristic Kitchen”, and “Bike Cops” (from previous albums Exhilarating News and A Rhythm in the Cages), frontman Rob Taxpayer tends not to dwell on the sunny side of life, preferring to roll around in the muck and misery of twenty-something disillusionment, desperation, and disenfranchisement. Not exactly a day at the beach, that.
Sombre circumstances notwithstanding, Rob’s anxious vocal delivery is remarkably upbeat, vacillating between sneering, scouring cries and casually cadential sing-speaking, and is, at times, reminiscent of the likes of John Darnielle, Craig Finn, Jeffs Mangum and Rosenstock, Jared Mees, Bruce Springsteen, and early Tom Gabel. Musically, The Taxpayers’ backing band supports Rob’s narratives with collectivist-friendly, genre-bending country-fried folk-punk—a quintessentially American blend of Midwestern twang, dour Delta blues, quick-fingered Kentucky bluegrass, big-band brass, spastic pop, and roughshod rock.
For their latest full-length, To Risk So Much for One Damn Meal, The Taxpayers have expanded their core power-trio of guitarist/singer-songwriter Rob Taxpayer, percussionist Noah Taxpayer, and bassist Phil Gobstopper to include accordionist/keyboardist Danielle Steal, bassist/engineer Eric Frame, trumpeters Kevin Lurkins and Eric Pauli, saxophonist Alex Bekuhrs, banjo player/pianist Tony Cippole, and trombonist Zach Moran.
All told, it’s a veritable house party for your ears, with the added personnel and emboldening instrumentals further amplifying and empowering The Taxpayers’ already energetic set-up. Album opener “The Windows Break” kicks things off with a barn burner, its initial burst of bright guitar riffs, harmonica, bass drum, and blaring horns scaling back to muted six-string, subtle bass, and Rob’s rhythmically sung-spoken tale of domestic abuse witnessed in passing, only to gradually build back up, verse after fretful verse, to a reprisal of its emphatic instrumental introduction. Talk about putting your best foot forward.
Neatly transitioning into “And the Damn Thing Bit Him!”—which likewise blends near-seamlessly into “Rapid Movements in a Bottle”—The Taxpayers swagger, strum, blow, thump, and sneer at the settled-down discontentment and soul-killing sameness of modern life. Though it may read like a whole lot of passive-aggressive pissing and moaning, The Taxpayer’s lengthy laundry list of unfortunate circumstances and embittering disappointments—the ennui of “Everything is Awful”, the economic constraints of shout-along duet “Geodesic Prison Song”, the plaintive, hungover self-reflection of “Louisiana Hot Sauce Rainy Nights”, the public apathy of “Everybody Just Stood There”—is better viewed as a call to action, a catalogue of all-too-common problems that cry out for redress, however small-scale and localized. Sure, day-to-day living isn’t always peaches and cream, but The Taxpayers aren’t presenting boredom, poverty, besotted dissatisfaction, and casual indifference as excuses to give up or get violent; they’re reasons to push forward, to make an effort. To sober up, knuckle down, and try.
Even the end-times imagery of “The Cold Front” and “A Matter of Simple Deduction” has less to do with bitter resignation in the face of certain doom than with accepting the inevitable (we all gotta die someday, y’dig?) and learning to do without the willful self-delusions and theo-philosophical self-medications to which so many people turn in order to dull the pain of living or abdicate personal responsibility. Sure, the dashed hopes, societal disarray, and ominous horns of “Some Kind of Disaster Relief” dwell overlong on life’s many, many difficulties. Ditto the accounts of urban decay in piano ballad “It Gets Worse Every Minute” and the somewhat ironic melodic nods to “Heart and Soul” in “My Brother Isn’t Dying”. But, at the end of the day—as viewed from the window seat of a bus in “Let the Wheels Turn Slowly”—The Taxpayers are just like anyone else: exhausted by the demands of the day, looking for some small sliver of peace, for the reassurances of friends and family, for the relative safety of home.
Over the course of To Risk So Much for One Damn Meal, The Taxpayers offer neither placations nor incitements. They provide little-to-nothing in the way of easy answers or pithy one-liners, only wistful observations of the world around them, evidence of lives plagued by problems without obvious solutions. In a sense, it’s almost like punk for grown-ups—rather, for grown-up punks who have finally realized that they know a hell of a lot less now than they did when they were teenagers. And yet, for all this uncertainty, The Taxpayers’ To Risk So Much for One Damn Meal remains a remarkably cathartic experience, all the more so because it has outgrown the vapid, cocksure rebellious pretenses that have plagued punk since its infancy. Cheers to that.
The Taxpayers’ To Risk So Much for One Damn Meal is available in CD/‘zine, cassette, and LP formats via the online storefronts of Useless State Records and Plan-it-X, or via donation-download at Quote Unquote Records.
Audio Reviews (February 24th, 2011)
Tags: beatbots, audio reviews, the taxpayers, to risk so much for one damn meal, useless state records, plan-it-x, quote unquote records