After the demise of the grunge movement came a different kind of band, with a different kind of sound and a different kind of agenda.
Sure they were from Seattle, and yes, they had a lot of angst. They also got heavy and sang about their problems, only while laughing out loud at themselves. If Nirvana were the psych patients of grunge royalty, they were the strippers that danced in their wake.
They were The Presidents of the United States of America. And they were downright strange. Hitting the big time with a self-titled album in 1995, the band summed up what grunge seemed to miss out on: the excess, good times and easy living of the ’90s.
The Presidents’ self-titled record is a mix of alternative, post-grunge and pop punk. Most of the music is fairly straightforward, with catchy, repetitive riffs blanketing each track. Yet, even though the band came at the tail end of the grunge movement, there are a lot of familiar grunge aesthetics, such as a heavy distortion, stripped-down guitar, pounding drums and frequent tempo changes.
Members Chris Ballew and Andrew McKeag play what they call the basitar and the guitbass, regular six-string guitars with special modifications that result in a heavier, more abrasive sound. The instruments seem well suited for songs like “Boll Weevil” and “Kitty,” which take advantage of powerful bass, distorted guitar work and screaming vocals. Other tracks, like “Stranger” and “Feather Pluckn,” are slower and barer, but still feature heavy choruses and domineering vocals.
Singer/basstarist Chris Ballew delivers oddball lyrics and an offbeat singing style that gives the group a distinct personality. A majority of what Ballew sings about is completely nonsensical. He spends most of his time referencing animals, highlighting at least one creature in every song, if not every other verse. For example, “Feather Pluckn” begins with “billions of birdies squawking out loud, talking in code to clams in the clouds,” and in “Dune Buggy,” “a little blind spider took the wheel, navigating grass blades completely by feel.”
It’s clear that rhyme scheme is important to Ballew, and a lot of his lyrics lack profundity as a result.
Despite the fourth-grade facade, there is depth beneath the surface, if you can find the patience to dig.
The Presidents of the United States of America casually tackle adult themes such as ineptitude, loneliness and social alienation. Behind every kitty, spider and salamander, there is a woman Ballew laments. Songs like “Stranger,” “Peaches” and “Body,” explore male loneliness and isolation, while “We’re Not Going to Make It,” and “Naked and Famous” look at fame and the prospect of selling out. A lot of self-loathing and resentment are present. Ballew is just more comfortable using circus animal symbolism in favor of ruining the listeners’ good time.
It’s fair to say the band is best known for two songs, both of which are on this album. The first is “Lump,” a hard-charging, drum-driven revenge anthem. With purpose and poise, Ballew turns the tables on a girl who is “emotionless except for her heart.” For once his references aren’t so subtle. When he accuses the protagonist of “spending her 20s beneath the sheets,” it’s the closest he gets to calling a woman a whore.
The song ends with Ballew repeating the words, “is this Lump out of my head, I think so.” It’s as if he’s finally gotten over a middle-school crush he never had the courage to ask out, and in order to make amends, he’s imagined her life as a miserable tramp.
The other song is “Peaches,” the band’s signature anthem. Like all the bands’ songs, the subject seems elementary and dim-witted (eating peaches), but in reality, it’s a melancholy ballad spiked with melody and emotion. According to Ballew, the lyrics are about a girl he liked who had a peach tree in her front yard. It’s familiar territory taken to another level by the forceful music. The song starts upbeat and pleasant, before turning twisted and dark, changing tempo halfway through, with a piercing bassline and rhythmic guitar, before finally breaking into all out thrash.
This album was The Presidents of the United States of America’s first and last commercial hit. Perhaps, its breed of ironic, self-deprecating rock wasn’t meant to last. Despite the band’s short reign, naming themselves after the leaders of the free world takes balls. It implies a sense of duty, gravity and ambition. The Presidents of the United States of America may or may not have these qualities, depending on how far one is willing dig into the music. Either way, it’s a band you can crack a beer to.