Album Reviews, Music

Review: Ben Weasel and His Iron String Quartet – These Ones Are Bitter

Ben Weasel is a prolific writer- both of song and word- having churned out more than a dozen albums as both a solo artist, and as front man of iconic Chicago punks Screeching Weasel and its more poppy counterpart, The Riverdales. Since the demise of his more group oriented work, he’s continued writing books and columns and the like, fading slightly from the spotlight but never quite disappearing from it. It’s been some 5 years since Ben wrote and released material under his own name, but the lingering tone and seemingly undying appeal of SW meant he never really went away (what, with all the constant reformation gossip simmering beneath). So while Screeching Weasel remains dormant for however long, Ben has once again embarked on a solo effort that once again has an ear on the Ramones side of things, but also recaptures the bratty, high-energy, melodic appeal of Screeching Weasel’s best moments.

It’s no secret that it was rather slim pickings for SW after 1996’s Bark Like a Dog– Weasel and company seemed that just run out of collective steam after that. And while his 2002 solo release, Fidatevi, hinted at a return to form, it was merely a dash of his brilliant, simple songwriting. So it’s great to hear that the last 5 years have been good for Ben and his guitar- after a short excursion to write another Riverdales album- he returns with his Iron String Quartet to release These Ones Are Bitter; the best Screeching Weasel album the band never wrote. It’s a full head of steam, highly charged romp through pop-punk’s finest qualities, and it’s a real joy to just sit here and listen to these tunes. From the opening salvo of “Let Freedom Ring” to the “Speed of Mutation”-sounding chorus of “In A Few Days,” it is clear that Weasel has re-found his touch, ultimately writing some of the best songs of his career.

It has all the noted Weaselisms spattered through the release; the piano Anthem For A New Tomorrow-era keyboards of “Blue is the Ocean,” to the ‘1-2-3-4s’ of “Happy Saturday,” all of which sounds very concise wrapped in the trademark fuzzy distortion of Ben’s riffs, the occasional overlapping solo, and a pretty tight backing band- which consists of names from Alkaline Trio and the All-American Rejects. To boot, the continuation of all the themes and topics he’s written about over the past 20 years litter much of the lyrics- “Jeanette,” I’m sure, has been mentioned before (or was that Janelle? Joanie? Or Jeannie?), and Ben’s springy step must have something to do with the tone of songs like “The First Day of Spring,” (a continuation perhaps of “The First Day of Summer”?) and “Summer’s Always Gone Too Soon,” an ongoing ode to things more cheery. And while he may never write another “Guest List,” there really isn’t a misstep amongst the bunch.

These Ones Are Bitter is what good pop-punk should sound like. It seems difficult these days for traditional pop-punk bands to make a name for themselves- truth be told, it isn’t the easiest genre to sell. And perhaps a good reason why Ben’s own Mendota Recordings is handling TOAB as a digital-only venture. But after listening to the record a good few times over, it’s clear to see that while the music won’t break down doors, or sell a bunch of records outside the old Lookout crowd, its an infinitely more rewarding listen, and pop-punk fans may have just found their saving grace. To slightly modify lyrics from a tune familiar with the Weasel lore, it is perhaps the best note one can hope to leave this on; “He don’t like Nirvana / I know he don’t like Prong / But it’s great to hear he again write great song.” (Mendota)