Naomi Punk and Misplaced 90s Nostalgia
By Erika Elizabeth
Naomi Punk / Hampshire College Dining Commons / Amherst, MA / 11.18.12
We’re in Western Massachusetts, a geographic area where J Mascis, Frank Black, and half of Sonic Youth are all in the local phone book.
Naomi Punk are in town from Olympia, WA, playing a show in the dining hall at Hampshire College to a crowd of college kids, most of whom I’m guessing were born in the 90s. Naomi Punk’s musical palette is also squarely situated in the Bill Clinton era, and it might seem unfair to single them out for their derivative flannel-flying, given that there’s hundreds of young Naomi Punks out there inspired by the same bands that were first inspired by the SST Records back catalog as we speak. I’m friends with quite a few of these bands, and even that’s not really enough to get me excited about warmed over Dinosaur Youth riffs.
Unlike those hundreds of other young Naomi Punks, this Naomi Punk just had their album The Feeling reissued by current ‘it’ label Captured Tracks, and according to the blurb being used to promote this particular show in the woods of Western Mass, they’ve been getting “positive press from Pitchfork, MTV Hive, and Fader, among others”. Maybe it’s just laziness on the part of the easily-stoked college kids who organized the show, but when the enticement to get me to go see a band is the amount of hype they’ve gotten by Pitchfork (which, as we all know, is never known for vague or hyperbolic writing), it doesn’t bode well for the promise of delivering the actual ROCK. The bottom line is that we’re in Amherst, dudes, and you can’t coast by on the 90s nostalgia buzz factor alone, especially when the real deal has such a strong legacy in my own backyard (just as the same could be said for Naomi Punk’s respective Olympia backyards). But I’m curious, I always enjoy the spectacle of bands playing in a college dining commons, and perhaps most importantly, the show is free, so here I am.
My thoughts as Naomi Punk play their first song (which I think is ‘The Spell’, but don’t quote me on that): It’s fine. Nothing about it is offensive, but nothing about it is inspiring, either. Unoriginal fuzzed-out indie guitar rock competently played by dudes with funny haircuts in over-sized T-shirts. I love plenty of bands that have mined that same formula to success (boy, do I ever), but the difference is that something like 20 years have passed since that might have been a novel concept, and with that much time between then and now, we’ve seriously had long enough to bring something extra to the table by this point. And I’m saying this as someone who was born in the mid-80s, so it’s not exactly like I was there for everything in the 90s the first time around, either. Sometimes when you remove things from their original context of place and time, you lose a lot in translation.
The second song they play doesn’t sound all that distinct from the first – same indecipherably echoed vocals, same gauzy grunge riff in a slightly different configuration that suggests a third generation photocopy of Nirvana. I think it might have been ‘Burned Body’, but I honestly couldn’t really tell the difference between that one and ‘The Spell’.
Whatever the song is called, by the end of it, both of their guitarists (they don’t have a bassist) have broken strings, and thus begins an awkward 10-minute diversion while said strings are changed. Their singer/guitarist apologizes because he’s lost his voice, and because they usually have “interludes” that keep him from having to talk between songs. If the one “interlude” they used between the first and second song is any indication, this just means recordings of phone calls about lost cats seen on neighborhood reward posters. While I doubt we’re missing out on anything due to the absence of further interludes, in retrospect, the lost cat sample might have been the most original moment in their entire set.
Strings are eventually replaced, and Naomi Punk play their third song, which sounds awfully like the first and second songs (I’ve sort of given up trying to pin names to their songs at this point – pick one at random and it’s probably not too far off base). By the beginning of the fourth song, strings are broken again, and the band calls it quits, saying that the abbreviated set will be a “teaser” for the next time they come through town. Yeah guys, I know I’m personally super-motivated for that one. Dear bands with a tendency to break guitar strings with any sort of regularity – have extras on hand, OK? Or better yet, have another guitar on hand, so your audience doesn’t have to spend more time waiting for you to change your strings than they have watching your entire set up until that point. Total momentum killer, assuming there was even momentum in the first place.
As underwhelming as Naomi Punk’s set had been, watching the whole thing fizzle out after a grand total of about 15 minutes of music being played was kind of fitting, as if the proceedings had been punctuated with the equivalent of an unenthusiastic shrug – if you’re going to be doing the 90s-praising indie guitar rock thing, that shit had better at least be head-bangable. Meanwhile, all I can think is, “Why this band?” Other than getting picked up by a fairly hot-shit indie label, what sets Naomi Punk apart from the legions of other bands comprised of boys with funny haircuts in over-sized T-shirts bowing down at the altar of 120 Minutes circa 1992?
They’re not particularly hooky, their live show is not engaging in the least, and this cloud of unshakeable generic sameness hangs over every song. A lot of kids who were born in-or-around the 90s are likely the ones most responsible for the “positive press” the band has received, whether it’s due to that era being the current popular touchstone for cultural homage, or simply the fact that being tolerable and competent is enough to warrant hyperbolic praise in music publications largely staffed by young 20-something journalism graduates.
We’re in Amherst, dudes. Or Olympia. Or whatever town your musical heroes were from. You need to do better than this.
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