don’t care for teenagers. Strike that. I fucking loathe them. I can tolerate their hormones (I can still masturbate with the best of them), their ridiculous clothes (is a sideways hat any stupider than wearing Doc Martens with a pair of shorts?) and music (Hoobastank vs. Red Hot Chili Peppers: You Decide), but what really zippers my sac is their lack of perspective, the attitude that everything they do and everything that is done to them has never happened before; that they, as individuals, are the only people on earth who go through the things they go through. And then they get pissed off when their parents or teachers attempt to comfort them by telling them, “Hey, I know, I know. I’ve been there. It’s okay.”
“You don’t know anything about it!”
Which brings us to Rubella, whose self-titled e.p. came with a boast from one of the band members that they are a “highly experimental” rock band. You can see them wandering the halls of Pacific Northwest High, but you have to look close. They’re not as tall or as good looking or as popular as the other kids who attend there -- Unwound, Sleater-Kinney, Modest Mouse, Some Velvet Sidewalk -- and they’re fine with that. They don’t want to fit in. They want to be individuals because the rest of those kids are clones. They all play rock music. They write choruses and bridges and songs that last longer than a minute and a half. They play sets and have encores and have nice gear. Why would anyone want to be a part of that?
But of course we, as older, detached observers of Rubella’s musical adolescence -- full of introspection and attempts to be unique -- just wouldn’t understand, right? We don’t see that playing out of tune or singing off-key is revolutionary. We, in our buttoned-down adulthood, don’t know that choruses and memorable interludes are passé. How could we? We’ve never been through what Rubella’s been through, have we?
Of course we have. For as long as there have been musical conventions, there have been people trying to destroy them. Those that succeed do so with grace and with what seems to be a natural propensity to invent. Often, however, they work within the established customs of rock music to further what those customs are capable of producing. Think of Fugazi; think of Shellac; think of Sonic Youth. Revolutionary? Absolutely. Reverent? Yes.
That’s what separates the successful agents of musical change from the failures: respect for and knowledge of the past. Musical conventions are not bad things; when in the right hands, they work magnificently well. That is why they became common. They are not necessary by any means, but they can be useful. That is why a band like Rubella is so frustrating. They remove any trace of musical convention -- which is a first step more bands should try -- but they fail to replace it with anything of value.
And therefore Rubella is a forgettable little tantrum of album. The songs are spastic, awkward, stuttering and often messy. They shift hastily from brief segment to brief segment, raging mathily for a few seconds then exploding into a squiggling punk break then driving straight for Chapel Hill. It’s heartfelt despite its thorough self-awareness and warm despite its angry yelp, but the songs on this e.p. have nothing holding them together, nothing memorable to distinguish one from the other.
That doesn’t seem to be the case at the outset. “Look! At My Shoes!” begins with a lonely trumpet refrain, but said trumpet is quickly overtaken by a skinny maelstrom of post-Unwound art-rock. It is, like most of the material, brief and brimming with rapid-fire changes. “Look!” establishes a nice, challenging anti-formula, but one that only works when the constituent parts are intriguing. Such is not the case.
The remaining nine songs materialize and disappear like snow in June, leaving almost nothing behind. “Unthank Plaza” makes use of K-ish pop breaks; “The Cute Bear” is fast, tense no-wave dissonance; “Take On Loan” has a short, cacophonous climax; “Stay Across the Room” intersperses its mid-90s fuzz with cartwheeling noise breaks. All decent pieces that take a lot of practice to nail down, and all possessed of what may be the seeds of great songs, but they lack the singular vision needed to blaze trails and are not deconstructive enough to be considered radical. “You Can’t Prove Anything” epitomizes the yelping struggles that permeate the album: a struggle between the strained vocals and the fuzzy clatter; a struggle between Rubella and the musical influences they are compelled to defy.
I will admit that Rubella is smarter than most teenagers (it should be; the band is made up of grown men), but it is no less frustrating. It may be every teen’s right to forge his own identity, but it’s every teen’s duty to become mature enough to realize that no man is an island and that Rome wasn’t burned in a day. No one ever learns these things when they’re in school, but imagine what the world would be like it they did.
Reviewed by: Clay Jarvis
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01