Provincializm: Ben Lee Covers Against Me, Etc.


William Bowers’s work shows up on SOTC every Tuesday. Read all his previous language attacks here.

Against Me drummer Warren Oakes, to be confused with 70’s gunslinger Warren Oates

Provincializm: (Notsomuch) Against Lee!

By William Bowers

Ben Lee covers Against Me’s New Wave

Until I started fact-checking today’s edition of this column, I (evidently) knew next-to-nothing about Ben Lee. I’d done gone and typed an awesome (trust me) paragraph about him being the boring guy that the young-and-hungry My Morning Jacket used to open for, prior to their current stature of playing with symphony orchestras at festivals with stages renamed after sponsors, the guy whose career arc got unfairly deconstricted by John Seabrook in The New Yorker (and later in his thesisless Vintage compendium Nobrow) as that of “The Next Kurt Cobain.” But, whoops, that was Ben Kweller, who, fwiw, did play with Lee as The Bens, doing Radiohead covers, reckon? Ben Lee, see, is the guy (born on September 11, bless his heart) from Noise Addict, the Sonic Youth-approved band of sonic youths who replaced Live Skull Old Skull as the novelty jailbait act along the “Alternative” shelf at these islands of klepto-magnets called Record Bars that malls used to include. Now he’s reportedly making an album with a producer of products by Mandy Moore, John Mayer, and Dave Matthews (who, as a native of South Africa, remains the most Puckish/assholish/funny thing to suggest whenever anyone, be they TV journalist or police dispatcher, identifies someone else as “African-American”—as in, “Ohhhh, African-American—like Dave Matthews?”). Maybe the Sellout McCredstalgia factor’s why Lee just covered, and is giving away for free his rendition of, the entire album by many-time Youth producer Butch Vig’s latest Billboard conquests: Against Me.

In the interest of excessive disclosure: I am typing this communique while carpetbombed on Fuzagis (one-half Gekkeikan Sake, one-half Fuze Slenderizer) in a hotel room in Gainesville, Florida, during the second consecutive night of Against Me’s post-major-label-debut homecoming (not counting a recent warehouse show). Despite being hailed as the “best place to live” for two different years, from two different sources, Gainesville is actually pretty horrible if you’re not on board an unsustainable train of Xtianity/capital/sports syncretism, and even its “underground” consists of a mostly monotone and macho punk scene full of dudes either mad at each other because they’ve dated each others’ dates—like (and I know and hurt for how bad this sounds) a Special Olympics version of a music scene hosted by Jerry Springer, or full of dudes in love with each others’ bad bands because they bike(d) together or work(ed) together in the service industry—an element so relentlessly “posi” that the crowds maintain a Branchdavidian McJonestown vibe, creepily aided by how often the cult members ignore new, interesting, and intelligent music from other zip codes in favor of keeping up with, and overestimating, their neighbor’s three-chord hit about, um, drinking in Gainesville.

Here’s the thing, though: until I internalized Tom Breihan’s spittle in favor of Against Me’s new album, I had me a righteous full-frontal boycott on listening to Gainesville alumni, assuming that the scene and its graduates were only capable of choad-detritus. But New Wave is one of my favorite albums of the year, despite every possibly valid criticism that could be thrown at it. Yes, certain songs simplify our country’s current war(s), but they do so in order to recomplicate portrayals of its supposed activists. Yes, it’s occasionally preoccupied with the limited cultural role of pop music, but Pavement got group-groped for doing the same thing back in the day, and fuck, so is every young person I know. Yes, Tom Gabel’s lyrics can be obvious to point of seeming redundant, but maybe he’s refusing to veil his POV, denying artifice its glamour, even if it results in his arrogantly being his audience’s (and I’ve beheld these sweet cretins) necessary philosophical surrogate: duh, only a goon would need to be told “Take some time to think/ figure out what’s important to you/ gotta make a serious decision”—but chasing cool really is a distraction for most small-scene goons.

Ben Lee’s version of New Wave is like a codeined, “family” version of the original’s pop-punk assault, which may make it more subversive? Here, “White People For Peace” sounds penned by a fed-up-with-it-all bar mitzvah band. Lee’s “Thrash Unreal” suggests a lined-in Jimmy Buffett trying to singer-songwriterbang complacent upper-class parents. Lee even chickenshitly retitles “Piss and Vinegar,” so as not to offend. But he closes strong, nailing the Adrian-Lyne-versus-She-Wants-Revenge line about “ultimate betrayal” from “Animal,” and he practically whips out his wiener during the raucously Latin-tinged “The Ocean,” the closest thing to acoustic punk that I can vouch for this week. Against Me may have done the heavy lifting, but Lee’s re-enactment somehow uses the same material to squeeze the anesthetized bladder of fate.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 21, 2007

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