Dreamworks Records, 2001
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/05/2002
The ever-handy All-Music Guide characterizes this album as "Energetic, reflective, fun, playful, earnest, cathartic, angst-ridden, brooding." Which is a very accurate set of adjectives, but also - think about it - a kind of ingredient list for rock and roll itself. Heady stuff, especially when you're talking about a young punk-pop band from Tempe, Arizona that had no contract and seemingly no future just two years ago.
But let's begin this saga at the beginning. It goes like this… Childhood buddies Jim Adkins (vocals/guitar) and Zach Lind (drums) form a band as teenagers with classmates Tom Linton (guitar/vocals) and Rich Porter (bass). Closing in on graduation and a record deal, the band loses Porter, replaces him with Rick Burch, and gets signed by a major label (Capitol) right out of high school. The band's honeymoon is brief as label suits promptly send them into the studio and ignore them, dropping the ball completely on both development and promotion of their first two studio albums (1996's Static Prevails and 1999's Clarity). The band goes to war with its own label until freed from their contract, fires their management, and resolves to tour Europe (?) and self-publish singles and EPs to support itself. Europe loves the band, the band scrapes up enough cash (barely) to record a new album with no label behind them. Buzz begins to mount in the industry that the resulting album is maybe, just possibly, a work of epochal brilliance. The band hires new management, their old label comes crawling back begging for another chance, but - awwww - gets outbid by a rival. The album is released to broad critical acclaim, the band becomes the toast of A-list entertainment media, good guys win, credits roll, etc.
The opening title track explodes in your ears with a fat, head-banging riff, but it's clear right away there's a lot more to this band than simple punk adrenalin. For one thing, the chorus drops quickly into a verse with tight pop harmonies. For another, the lyrics are, well, lyrical - an impressionistic poem that could be a profound statement about the empty materialism of American culture, a snarling rant against television-induced boredom, or both.
The second track, "A Praise Chorus," is one of those hard-rocking, preternaturally eloquent pleas for release and purpose that come along once or twice a generation. Its urgent tempo and searching what's-it-all-about message beg comparisons to the heyday of The Who and U2 as the band lays into the song with an evangelical fervor. (Adkins even borrows Roger Daltrey's "my g-g-generation" stammer.) The middle section is where they go for broke, though, shotgunning a cascade of lyric fragments lifted from a library of classic rock songs over the infamous chorus to "Crimson And Clover." Amazingly, it works, playfully cementing the band's admiration for their musical forbears to a timeless message that is the very essence of rock and roll: "I want to always feel like part of this was mine / I want to fall in love tonight." It's blistering, buoyant and, yes, brilliant.
(Side note to those hosers at Capitol: permission is granted at this point to weep in your beer. On second thought, you may need something stronger…)
Let's see, what else do we have? How about a gaggle of furiously melodic rockers with impossibly tight harmonies ("If You Don't, Don't," "Sweetness" and especially "The Middle"), many of them carrying minor echoes of fellow Tempe hook-masters the Gin Blossoms? Or a handful of shimmering, heart-on-their-sleeve ballads as sincere as a long-stemmed rose ("Your House," "Cautioners," "My Sundown")? Or a hybrid that shifts gears among trippy loops, growling punk crunch, and '80s metal power chords (the furious "Get It Faster")? Or even a song about a song, a Russian puzzle box of a composition that manages to both thrash like a garage band and soar on the wings of Beach Boyish harmonies ("The Authority Song")? Is there anything this band can't do?
Maybe not, judging by the centerpiece to this album, the brutally simple, emotionally raw ballad "Hear You Me." An elegy for a treasured friend/mentor who's passed on, its wrenching lyric and beautiful melody stay with you long after the song itself fades out. A bare snippet: "If you were with me tonight / I'd sing to you just one more time / A heart so big God wouldn't let it live / May angels lead you in." Here, as elsewhere, Rachel Haden puts the cherry on top with her achingly pretty harmony vocals. It is, quite simply, a knockout.
Self-congratulatoiry music critics have been trying for several years to ghettoize the hard-edged, modern, emotionally frank music made by bands like Jimmy Eat World as "emo" or "post-grunge" or some such, as if some pithy, invented categorization might give the music's essential power and honesty a little extra cachet. I just don't see the point. This album is indeed "energetic, reflective, fun, earnest, cathartic, brooding" - the same set of adjectives people have been using to describe the very best rock and roll for the past half century. Bleed American - raucous and passionate, sad and sweet, and above all honest and true - is in that class.