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Marathon Men

July 20th, 2005 Posted in Music

One of the main reasons I stopped listening to nothing but punk rock records is that there was simply no place left to go. Many of my favorite punk rock bands kept on releasing record after 30-minute record as I grew up; Screeching Weasel alone released fourteen full length albums over the course of thirteen years, and the Queers and MTX both have similar discographies. The catch is that while I love every single Screeching Weasel record, they all sound largely the same. There’s a clear and important reason for this: punk rock artists (real ones, at least) place intentional constraints on their music. The concept of raging against an establishment is so central to the punk ethos that it translates directly to the sound: strip away all the violins, all the accordions, all the pan-flutes, turn up the three instruments you have left, and irritate the hell out of whoever you can. And while stripping down your sound can be an effective method of exposing the raw, pulsing core of your genre (see: The Black Keys), it’s a double-edged sword. The same constraints that made Screeching Weasel the best snotty Ramones-style punk rock band ever also eternally confined them to being a snotty Ramones-style punk rock band. There’s only so much you can do with three chords, and so I moved on. I started listening to the stuff I used to make fun of, and now I can barely find room to squeeze my SW records in between Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens.

But every now and then, I hear something that makes me see the punk-light again. It happens every time the Soviettes release a higher numbered LP, or when the Lawrence Arms come to town. And this week, it’s a self-titled album from a New York band called Marathon.

I originally stumbled onto their song Painting by Numbers on the compilation that came with last month’s Vice Magazine. After putting that song on permanent repeat for about six days, I figured it was time for more, and I picked up the full record. This album is a masterpiece. Marathon has taken all the parts of punk rock that matter, brought them all together seamlessly, and breathed new life into them; the album is simultaneously catchy, political, funny, sugary, and furious. Painting by Numbers is all you need to hear to understand what I mean: it begins with a metal guitar riff, dripping with distortion and accompanied by a frenzied scream: “Let’s start a war!”. But before you can say Black Flag, the song switches into NOFX mode as the skate-punk double-bass-pedal beat kicks in. While the lead guitar whines away, the vocals start in, and you are suprised once again: harmonies. Real harmonies. And, oh, the words!

We hold the purse, we hold the reins
We can deny these spoiled kids their next allowance
When they start shoving ’round like bullies on the playground
We shake our pockets for more change

Let’s start a war
‘Cause I’m a sucker for a good fight
Let’s start a war

Will we say that we’re not buying any toys for naughty children?
No we’ll just turn away and pass the buck off to the governments who kill off all the dissidents
And let our culpability dissolve out in the acid rain

How many bands can pull off jokes about being charitable by helping homeless bombs find places to explode (without sounding absurd)? And just when you think they’ve gone all preachy and Propoghandi on you and you start to kinda want them to shut the fuck up, they kick into the next song, entitled “I Don’t Have a Dancing Problem”. Are you fucking kidding me?

The album moves on, shifting comfortably from the acoustic Names Have Been Changed (To Protect the Guilty) to the driving thrash of Matchmaker, Matchmaker, and as it moves forward, you just have no idea what to expect next. And when it’s done, you just want it to start all over again.

Bottom line: this album is solid gold, and if these assholes don’t blow through San Francisco soon, I think my head asplode.

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