I’ve been pretty partial to punk music recently. There’s something about the medium that honestly and transparently communicates sincerity. Sure, to the untrained ear, it’s raw aggression and rather sloppy noise. But there’s more depth than that. Although not exclusively, punk can be an incredible vessel for getting your thoughts and ideas out to the world. But The Distillers are a bit different. Well, there’s one obvious difference: Brody Dalle leads this female-fronted assault of energy. There’s a weird disconnect in the punk scene where the seemingly inclusive can quickly turn unwelcoming to change or adversity. I was anxious to see if The Distillers could toe that line. And I definitely found out.
I took a little bit of liberty with this one. I’d started the week listening to a different artist (who’ll be featured next week), but mid-week, I was turned onto The Distillers through a simple text. So I listened to a song. And then the album. And then the album again. And then I decided to shake up my plans. Sometimes life happens like that. But I was surprised I hadn’t heard of them. Brody had been married to Tim Armstrong of Rancid, and Josh Homme from Queens Of The Stone Age. There are definite ties and connections to the scene. Sing Sing Death House was released in 2002, which was a weird time for punk. Punk was pop-punk. “Real” punk was mostly put out through Fat Wreck Chords, but some would debate what constitutes “real” punk. I’m no purist. If you can trace your roots back to punk and feature its elements within your music, you’re more than allowed to affix the genre to your title.
Here’s where I usually say a piece about the production of an album. I wasn’t sure whether or not to omit that with Sing Sing Death House. It’s punk. The playing is sloppy in parts. The mix is a bit muddy. The bass tone is prickly in context, and the playing can be a bit distractingly active. But it’s punk. While I do love me a polished album, this one doesn’t sound amateur. The only unforgivable aspect is the lack of clarity from the vocals. Before I start singing my Brody praises, I can’t help but feel the biggest disappointment from this album is the mistake of not showcasing Brody’s unique voice for what it is. Some added top-end air/clarity would really help to bring out character and intelligibility to sections that can be difficult to interpret.
I’m a sucker for a raspy voice. I was not expecting Brody’s voice. Not to deny the music of its merit, but this is the showcase of the album. Imagine if Janis Joplin had shredded her vocal chords, duct taped them back together, and screamed her throat raw again. It’s unique, but most of all, it’s incredibly fitting. From the first track, you’ll drop your preconceived concerns of, “I’m not sure how a girl singing punk will work” because Brody can pull it off like no woman I’ve heard before. Reserved singing, or full-on screaming. You hear this throughout the album’s variety. If you like your punk to go from Skate to Pop to Hardcore to Melodic, you’ll find something here. There’s a Minor Threat reference in the first track. These guys aren’t kidding.
Something else came to mind when I was told to listen to a female-fronted Punk band. What better way to further the feminist/social-justice movement than through some of the original protest music? Sing Sing Death House is an incredibly lyrically provocative album, and it manages to avoid being overbearing. Examples? The sardonic opener Sick Of It All:
“I’m a girl
I’m only thirteen
My body rots
Cause I won’t f—— eat
I’m a silent star on the b-roll
I’m a mirror f—— image of no control”
Or the slap in your face pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps that is The Young Crazed Peeling:
“You can build up your walls sitting on death row
Let the curtain fall on your murdered soul
You can wash it all down swallow your story
Get smacked off your head go down in drumroll glory
You won’t solve it committing self inflicted crime
Go on pull the trigger this will be the last time”
I’m checking off almost every box for Sing Sing Death House. It’s 28 minutes of fresh air for punk. It’s much too easy to write generic punk music. All it takes is a D-Beat, 3 power chords, and some yelling. That worked for a while, but it’s been done. That’s not to give unduly credit. The Distillers won’t be remembered for their intricate playing or novel song structures and ideas. The Distillers will be remembered for slapping punk in the face. Maybe the Hardcore fans will find this too melodic. Maybe those who aren’t regular punk listeners will find this harsh. But Sing Sing Death Song does an incredible job of melding old and new while managing to be distinct, and most importantly, accessible. There’s a bit of everything, and a wealth of substance crammed into less than half an hour. Sing Sing Death House is genuine, and that’s what matters.