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splendid > reviews > 1/13/2004
Poster Children
Poster Children
No More Songs About Sleep and Fire
Hidden Agenda


Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "Sugarfriend"

Buy me now
The wonderful thing about No More Songs About Sleep and Fire, and the Poster Children's music in general, is that you can't put it on one of those tidy little metaphorical shelves that marketing people love to build. There's no handy three-word description, no hyphen-heavy hybrid to describe their sound; "power-pop" is woefully inadequate, "punk" is one-dimensional, "post-punk" lacks historical perspective. Keep trying if you'd like -- you're going to fail. The Poster Children make Poster Children records, and a Poster Children record can be many things.

For instance, No More Songs About Sleep and Fire is exuberant. "Hollywood Pt. II" rattles forward on Rose Marshack's juggernaut bassline and a thicket of chiming, echoing, jutting guitars, Rick Valentin's near-spoken vocals on the verses sharply offset by the sing-song chorus he shares with Marshack. "Flag", on the other hand, tips its hat to the "established", highly energized PC sound: Rick's zig-zaggedy guitar line bounces around in the foreground, Marshack's bass rumbles relentlessly behind it, Jim Valentin anchors his brother's fretboard acrobatics with a chugging guitar rhythm, and new drummer Matt Friscia does his damndest to outpace his bandmates. Rabble-rousing lyrics complete the puzzle -- it's quintessential Poster Children, but it's also No More Songs' only real concession to the past.

No More Songs About Sleep and Fire is also highly personal. Jagged, post-punky opener "Jane" might describe any twenty-first-century woman, but it's actually a highly specific song about one of Marshack's friends (no prizes for guessing her name). With lyrics like "She's a budding kung fu master / she's a tae kwan do soul sister / yeah, she could kick your ass (but she doesn't wanna!)", it's also one of the rare rock songs that openly praises intelligence and extols the boundless options open to anyone who's young, smart and motivated. Why aren't there more songs like it? On a more convoluted note, fuzzed-out breakneck anthem "Different and Special Things" stems from an experience Rick and Rose had while traveling in Tibet -- but you don't need to know the story to enjoy the song.

No More Songs About Sleep and Fire is also referential -- but not excessively so. For every overt homage -- and they don't come much more overt than "The Floor"'s unmistakable Pixies tribute -- there's a sidelong, conceptual acknowledgement. First single "Western Springs", for example, stems from Rick listening to a lot of Bobby Bare Jr. and wanting to anchor a song to a particular place, as Bare so often does. Rick and Jim grew up in the airtight Chicago suburb of Western Springs (a mere fifteen minutes from Splendid HQ), and Rick claims that the town fits the song's meter better than his and Marshack's longtime home, über-college-town Champaign-Urbana, does. Trust us, though: Western Springs, the town, is a hell of a lot more boring and whitebread than Champaign-Urbana will ever be. There's a lot of great stuff going on in "Western Springs", the song -- a rumbling, resonant bass rhythm, elastic guitars and clattering drum-stops -- but Rick and Rose's even monotone perfectly conveys the stultifying dullness of a town "where the streets are safe and the air is clean." If you scour the album for other references, you'll find plenty -- from the title's homage to David Byrne et al, to a pervasively steely moral resolve that (literally) screams "We played a few shows with Fugazi and were forever changed by the experience."

No More Songs About Sleep and Fire is also confrontational. While "Sugarfriend"'s brash, angular dismissal of a parasitic fair-weather acquaintance is a classic punk dis rooted as much in humor as grievance, "The Leader"'s quasi-fascist sloganeering points its finger at the Bush administration. As political statements go, it's pretty vague stuff, but the song's vibrant combination of swaggering garage-rock riffs and sludgy psychedelic rock-squalls make it more compelling than politics.

No More Songs About Sleep and Fire is also ground-breaking. In addition to its twelve songs and inevitable video (for "Western Springs"), it steals a page from the DVD playbook by including an album-length commentary track. Like most commentary tracks, it's a behind-the-scenes kind of thing, featuring Rick and Rose talking about making the album as said album plays in the background. Unlike most DVD commentary tracks, it's designed to be listened to on its own. (If you have a fast computer and a good sound card, it's possible to listen to both the commentary and the album simultaneously, but you'll drive yourself nuts trying to get the levels right and the playback synched. Trust me.) If you enjoy Rick and Rose's online talk show, Radio Zero (and you really should check it out), you'll enjoy the commentary -- it's basically a Radio Zero episode without any discussion of George W. Bush, gestational diabetes or Rick's CS 373 class. If only it was broken up into tracks, like the record itself, I could've used it to fact-check this review.

In conclusion, No More Songs About Sleep and Fire is many things; we've barely scratched the surface. We're content to view it as a vibrant, engrossing album by a seasoned band whose best years are still ahead of them -- or as smart, funny, incisive music for intelligent, slightly geeky outsiders who aren't uptight about being intelligent, slightly geeky outsiders. It's also an album to savor: until Rick and Rose's newest side project, Gram Marshack Valentin (who'll be two months and two days old when this review runs), is ready to go on tour, they aren't likely to venture too far from home. Let's hope he's a quick study.



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