Point/Counterpoint on Andrew Jackson Jihad as a full bandPhil Collins and Steve O - July 28, 2014
Steve O and I have both seen Andrew Jackson Jihad several times during the last handful of years. During this span of time, the band has transformed from a two person acoustic live show to a full band electric live show. Their recorded music, in turn, has followed a trajectory moving away from pure folk punk and toward indie rock territory. In this point/counterpoint, I detail the merits of this change and Steve O discusses the reasons why AJJ is better as a two-man enterprise.
Point: The evolution of AJJ's sound is good for the fans and the band
The first time I saw Andrew Jackson Jihad, they were one of the opening bands at Beat Kitchen. I did not know what to expect, since I did not know the band terribly well at the time. I had never heard anyone outside my group of friends talk about them, so I imagined that not very many people would know them at this show. It turned out that everyone went to the show specifically to see Andrew Jackson Jihad. The place was packed. Fans shouted out the words. People moved around. After their set, the venue more or less cleared out. There was no question who people had come to see that night. That, of course, was the classic two person lineup of Andrew Jackson Jihad featuring Sean Bonnette on acoustic guitar and vocals and Ben Gallaty on standup bass.
I saw the band many times as the two-man acoustic outfit. Those shows were great. Everyone shouted along as loud as they could. It was easy for the crowd's singing along to be as much a part of the show as the sounds coming from the stage. That was an important time in AJJ history, a time that was a blast to participate in. Seeing the band these last few times on tours supporting "Knife Man" and "Christmas Island" as a full electric five-piece has channeled the excitement of seeing them that first time again. These last two records have been so strong partly because they have their own identity. It is more exciting to watch a band's sound progress than to see them put out a variation of the same record over and over again. "Knife Man" did not click with me when I first listened to it, but listening to it now it feels like a greatest hits album. Those songs are so powerful and so catchy, the record goes by in the blink of an eye. AJJ played Bottom Lounge a couple weeks ago and people went wild for any of the songs played off "Knife Man." It has not taken long for people to get to know "Christmas Island," either. They played one of my favorite songs off that record, "Coffin Dance." Ben sings the majority of this song, a first for AJJ. It is a low key, broody number driven by keyboards and a vocal hook. It is not the kind of song that jumps out at you on the first listen. It is the kind of song you find yourself humming three weeks later, wondering what that tune could possibly be.
In addition to playing the songs that were written by the full band incarnation of AJJ, the band now plays older songs as a full band. Some of these songs were recorded with full instrumentation, even if they were rarely played that way live until recently. The best example of this is "A Song Dedicated to the Memory of Stormy the Rabbit." I saw the full band play this with Jeff Rosenstock on saxophone a couple years ago, on the same tour they recorded "Live at the Crescent Ballroom." This was one of my favorite AJJ moments of all time. The instrumentation raged in a way that made that performance feel closer to the spirit of the original song than a stripped down acoustic version. Check out a fan's video of that performance below.
At the most recent show at Bottom Lounge, AJJ also played "Growing Up," "People II," "Bad Bad Things" and "Brave as a Noun." Naturally, these songs sound different than they did when it was just Sean and Ben were on stage. Different in the sense that the band's sound has evolved and these old favorites have evolved along with it. The biggest surprise of the night was the back to back "All the Dead Kids" and "Unicron" off AJJ's split with Ghost Mice. I do not remember ever seeing them play these songs before. Hearing these songs played through the filter of this new lineup was just as exciting as it was hearing some of the old songs played for the first time years ago.
Counterpoint: My era of AJJ seems to have passed
“We didn’t come here to rock / We only came to disappoint you.” So sang Andrew Jackson Jihad back in 2009. As much as I hate to say it, they do that now. Now, before I start my complaining and before you jump to any conclusions, let me just proclaim my enjoyment of this band. I’ve seen them live a whole bunch of times and would go every time they were in town (I think I’m up to 8, but it’s possible I have underestimated that count), I own physical copies of all their records (excluding their newest), and I consider People that can Eat People are the Luckiest People in the World to be one of my favorite records all time, of any genre. There was a while they would have been near the top of the list when discussing my favorite bands. But the changes they have gone through in the past couple of years just don’t sit well with me.
When I think of AJJ, I think of Ben and Sean playing upright bass and acoustic guitar, respectively, playing catchy, quick-paced songs. There could be additions (and indeed there were, see Jeff Rosenstock playing sax on “You Don’t Deserve Yourself”), but at the root, it was just the two of them on acoustic instruments. Not anymore, especially live. It’s a full band, and honestly, for me, it’s a bummer. Old songs like “I am so Mad at You,” “People II: The Reckoning,” and “Unicron” just sound different. I imagine it’s exactly what those who love old-school Propagandhi feel like when they hear How to Clean Everything songs nowadays; they sound totally different. It was that uniqueness of their live set that made them so exciting and entertaining. Just acoustic guitar and upright bass, you don’t see that from headlining bands all that often. A full band with electric guitars and drums, well, that sounds like just about anything. That distinct AJJ sound just didn’t carry over.
One last gripe of mine is the change in their songs. Another trait I have always assigned to AJJ is the idea of ‘sad songs sung happily.’ They have slowed down a lot, particularly on Christmas Island, their newest record. The songs just sound sad now; they lack that upbeat feel that made them seem happy before. I’m not gonna throw every song under the bus, there’s some I still enjoy (such as “Temple Grandin”), but I find listening to the record straight through more of a chore than a pleasure.
Andrew Jackson Jihad seem to be more popular than ever right now. It seemed as if the entirety of Plan-It-X Fest was singing along to “Big Bird.” I’m glad they’ve had success, they’ve put the work in and they deserve it. Sean has some fantastic lyrics, they tell great stories and are quite unique and recognizable. “Maybe we weren’t put on this earth to rape and pillage and ravage / Because god created puppy dogs and god created kittens” (from “Power Plant”). How awesome is that? The entirety of “People II: The Reckoning” is brilliant. Unfortunately, I am quite sorry to say, that my era of AJJ seems to have passed. When you have a distinct idea of how something should be, and then it is not like that anymore, it is hard to adapt. And that’s where I am with Andrew Jackson Jihad. That said, long may they rock. Or not.