It’s easy to forget how teen and pop culture are historically intertwined. How, with acts like Elvis or the Beatles, the rebelliousness of rock music was exploited as a marketing gimmick to sell records to the emerging boomer demographic as early as the 1950s and '60s.
Nowadays, this aspect of teenagers' as cash cows is ingrained in our culture, even for those suspecting they're part of some counter-culture -- just see the vinyl record bins at your local Urban Outfitters. It begs the question, from Top 40 down all the way down to Tame Impala blaring from an H&M, can music for teens be truly sincere?
Beach Slang might provide the answer.
For their current tour, frontman James Alex faces the daunting task of recreating his band’s raucous, indelible pop-punk hooks and Replacements/Springsteen-channeling vocal earnestness alone. That's because the Philadelphia group's drummer was asked to leave in May, and their guitarist left the day before the tour amid sexual assault allegations.
“I’ll never be as good as my favorite Paul, but I’m here anyway,” Alex said Friday at Triple Rock in Minneapolis, an assumed nod to Westerberg rather than McCartney. Masked in KISS makeup and donning a fluffy white pirate shirt that looked borrowed from Prince’s wardrobe, it was clear that Alex was trying to make the most of a less-than-ideal situation.
The structure of the night was both loose and jovial, which each song beginning like a thought experiment that either succeeded wildly or faded into cacophonous disarray. Alex split his time between heart-strung covers of his clear influences -- the Replacements’ “Alex Chilton” and “Can’t Hardly Wait” and the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind,” among others -- to cuts mostly from his band’s latest, A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings.
Alex extended a warm invitation to the audience to join him on stage to play along whenever they wanted to. Members of like-minded angsty openers, Hunny and Bleached, sporadically accompanied him to flesh out some songs, resulting in the evening's clear highlights.
Watching people walk on and off stage throughout the night made for an intimate experience, particularly so for the die-hard Beach Slang fans belting out every word. And it was a rarity to see a punk band strip itself down to its bare parts for the audience to do with them what they will; the crowd responded with joy and eagerness to fill up the spaces Alex left behind.
Yet many of the Beach Slang songs could not be sustained with Alex alone. Despite his best intentions, the songs felt underdeveloped without a full backing band. It didn’t help that, in contrast to high-energy openers Hunny and Bleached (the latter of which ignited a mosh-pit midway through their set), the set felt like an exercise in what could’ve been.
On the other hand, it was an opportunity for Beach Slang fans to engage with Alex in a truly unique way that was simply fun at its core. “I have absolutely no ego,” Alex said toward the end of his set, and it’s hard not to believe him, as he wore his heart on his sleeve with each passing song.
Sweat began to drip the paint off Alex's face as he hugged a fan and remembered the last time he came through town, then delving into the song “Future Mixtape for the Art Kids." On it, he unabashedly sang: “Stick your heart on your sleeve / If it breaks, stitch it on to me / Bash it back into shape / You might be cracked, but I won't let you break.”
One could be skeptical that a 40-something man could sound so sincere evoking such teenage feelings. But, for all intents and purposes, Alex did just that.
Critic’s bias: I have a soft spot in my heart for overly emotional pop-punk songs. And despite the pure cheesiness of some Beach Slang lyrics (for instance, “We are not alone, we are not mistakes / Don't whisper now, we're allowed to be loud” off “Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas”), Alex has a delivery that just makes them work, not unlike fellow Polyvinyl faves Japandroids.
The crowd: There was a marked shift between Bleached and Beach Slang’s sets, the former particularly young and wily compared to the more enthused cross-generational mix of the latter. But for both acts a man in a cheetah onesie braved through the night.
Overheard in the crowd: “I thought he (another in the crowd) said ‘Fuck the Replacements...’ That’s a bold statement to make right now. You’re gonna get flack from that one buddy.”
Random notebook dump: Is there a connection between Alex’s garb and the likes of '00s emo bands like Panic! At the Disco or My Chemical Romance?