Somewhere in the Swamps of Jersey
[Jade Tree; 2006]
Lifetime bookmarked my formative New Brunswick, N.J. years: I arrived in 1992, around the time the band released its full-length debut, and left for the West Coast in 1997, within weeks of its breakup. Even during that vibrant peroid, it was an underdog city; since then, the best local clubs have been bulldozed and the indie record store that signed my checks went kaput. Still, New Brunswick possesses a rock aura largely because of Lifetime (and, okay, the Bouncing Souls) and the subsequent success of Thursday, a band who likely wouldn’t have existed without their elders.
Unlike many other hardcore favorites, Lifetime progressed substantially over the course of their career– their last two albums, Hello Bastards (1995) and Jersey’s Best Dancers (1997)– are their best work and classics in the genre. Why bother with the history? Because those two records are the reason Somewhere in the Swamps of Jersey exists. Angular, honed, stuffed with feedback, lyrically taut, they deliver resonant pop-hardcore shards that transcend the "emo" tag by a mile. There are those complexly scissor-fight guitar parts, fault-line structures, and muscular drums, but the centerpieces are Katz’s poetic pen and exploded monotone, the latter which comes off agitated, bored, and heartsick all in the same line.
Katz slurs his best lyrics, chopping sentences into weird line breaks. The effect is weirdly hypnotic. It doesn’t get more heartbreakingly introspective (and introspectively triumphant) than "Hey Catrine" or more carefully observed than memorizing the map a girl’s squints in "Turnpike Gates". Plus, even just looking at Hello Bastards’ appropriation of the Housemartins London O Hull 4′s cover art, it was clear they were lighting out into more interesting territory than your average post-Minor Threat youth crew.
The older, baggy-pants material isn’t as strong, but it possesses a raw, charismatic appeal and melodic sense lacking in most East Coast straightedge rock. Somewhere in the Swamps of Jersey, makes this early, pre-Jade Tree work available en masse: The self-titled "New Age" 7", the "Tinnitus" 7" EP, three versions of the Background LP– straight up, remixed, and as a live set– compilation tracks, and a pair of covers (Billy Bragg’s "New England" and Embrace’s "Money").
Background is historically important, but it’s awkward as a three-peat. I appreciate "You" and "Thanks" (sounding very Hüsker Dü in its remixed form), but three times? That said, the most interesting take is the 2005 overhaul: It’s sharper, brighter, the guitars more pronounced, the drums super-sized. It’s so superior to the original that it seems odd they bothered including the old version on the unnecessary second disc. It’s nice for purists to have both that and the live archival stuff, but otherwise the second slab feels like a justification for the 52-page perfect-bound booklet, which comes amply packed with liner notes, lyrics, and photographs. Those visual accouterments are great, but why not pack disc two with additional rarities or practice tapes?
Whatever my gripes, disc one’s tight. It’s great to listen again to "Somewhere in the Swamps of Jersey", originally released as the superior B-side to the "Boy’s No Good" 7". Same goes for 1994′s "Ferret", which takes a minute or so kick into a quicker gear; when it does, it shifts to a blissfully emotive harmony. "Isae Aldy Beausoleil" and the rest of the stuff from the Seven Inches compilation is here, as well, but the real collector gems, are previously unreleased remixes of Jersey’s Best Dancers material: A mellow, differently enunciated "Young, Loud, and Scotty" and a fuzzed-out "Bringin’ It Backwards", featuring a less explosive mosh coda than the album version. The rawer "Theme Song For a New Brunswick Basement Show"’s appealing in its apropos basement-karaoke quality.
But why Lifetime? Why now? As most folks know, they recently signed to Decaydance, a subsidiary of Fueled By Ramen run by Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz. Cynics and angsty teens are shaking their heads, but Lifetime were climaxing when they split and remain friends (or, at least friendly), so why not? In their first incarnation, New Brunswick’s finest delivered their sounds in a tiny van, crashing on friend’s popcorn strewn floors. Their music’s always reflected that road-wizened, pre-Warped Tour sensibility– the production never slick, but always tight. That in mind, guessing which direction the band takes with the new record will be fascinating. Wisely, they’re sticking with Steve Evetts, who recorded their last two records. Smart, because their legacy could largely depend on it (no pressure, dudes). But whatever, even if they weren’t returning to hopefully breath some life into a fairly stale genre, Somewhere in the Swamps of Jersey successfully provides a snapshot of an important moment in hardcore and post-hardcore before it become a million-dollar industry. Here’s hoping they get some of that cake, too.