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The Boston Phoenix Punk Rock 101

Short Music for Short People

By Carly Carioli

JUNE 14, 1999:  The ideal length for a pop song is right around three minutes; for a punk-rock song, somewhat shorter. Under normal circumstances, you might be able to play a really good song in just under two minutes -- anything less and you're well into blursville, that state where you don't hear a song as much as you sense its velocity. So as a concept, at least, a CD offering 101 30-second tracks by 101 bands would seem useful only as novelty or torture. But Fat Wreck Chords' Short Music for Short People is one of the most fun punk albums in recent memory, and the one most likely to serve as punk's epitaph for the end of the century. After the Ramones' End of the Century, of course.

Short Music is irresistible, first and foremost, just for the sheer volume of top-notch bands both old and new it includes, from the Circle Jerks and the Damned through D.O.A., Youth Brigade, Subhumans, and Poison Idea up to such kings of the modern-day idiom as Green Day, Rancid, the Offspring, Lagwagon, Bad Religion, Pennywise, and the Living End. For such a vast undertaking, it's exquisitely paced, with in-jokes inserted in the sequencing -- for example, back-to-back tracks by No Fun at All, Sick of It All, and All and by Black Flag, White Flag, and Anti-Flag.

It's also remarkable that the vast majority didn't just turn in 30 seconds -- they turned in 30 good (and occasionally great) seconds. There is almost no filler. Instead of speeding things to blursville, most of the bands stick to reasonable tempos and settle for two verses and a chorus, one long vamp, or maybe three verses and a bridge. What you end up with is perhaps the best punk-rock sampler disc ever pressed -- a consumer guide on plastic. (Hey, it worked on me: right after I get done here I'm going searching for more Killswitch material.)

Vinyl purists like to argue for the perfectitude of the album format: two distinct sides, each with a beginning and an end; a 20-minute-or-so time limit on each half, preserving some reasonable scale of listenability for one sitting. With much lengthier running times, and the easy option of skipping over what you don't want to hear, the CD has encouraged artists to cram as much stuff into as little space as possible. It is a medium ruled with the mentality of pack rats. So in its own way, Short Music for Short People is the purest product of the CD age. And it's also a subtle subversion of that technology. My cheapo discman can handle only 99 tracks -- which means that if I wanna listen to the Misfits' "NY Ranger" (song #100), I can't just skip to it. First I've gotta listen through the 99th track (Caustic Soda's "Welcome to Dumpsville, Population: You"), which I don't mind in the least. It's the same kind of low-grade thrill you get when your odometer flips, or when you beat a Ms. Pac-Man machine.

The idea of compiling 30-second songs may sound bizarre, but it isn't even new -- John Zorn used the same concept to collect the avant-noise underground several years ago (the joke being that the best pieces on Naked City topped out around 15 seconds, so some of the contributions actually sounded a bit long). And in the grindcore world -- where 30 seconds is an eternity -- it was barely a novelty to fit 50 songs on a seven-inch single on compilations like "Bleeauurrggghhh!" and "Son of Bleeauurrggghhh!"

But the reason Short Music puts all those others to bed is precisely because it becomes, over its 50 minutes and 16 seconds, a rumination on limits. The focus in an inordinate number of songs is, self-reflexively, on the 30 seconds itself -- in essence, the disc is a multitude of answers to the question "What's 30 seconds good for?" The participants being predominantly male, plenty of the answers have to do with sex, like Nerf Herder's "Doin' Laundry" ("I was thinking of you when I jerked off into my sock last night") and NOFX's "Watch Her Pee." Then there's the punk thing to do -- which is, given 30 seconds, to use only seven of them (the leadoff track by the Fizzy Bangers, "Short Attention Span"), or simply to count to 30 against a chainsaw-poppy riff (the closing track by Wizo, destined for a second life on Sesame Street). But no matter what's being sung about, each and every song is shot through with a demanding (if artificially imposed) urgency. The songs are always, even at the very beginning, on the verge of ending -- like innocence, or adolescence, or (on Pennywise's "Thirty Seconds till the End of the World," which ends with the sound of a nuclear blast) life itself.

"Hold onto fun as long as you can," advise Down by Law on their " 'cause life is short, and this is your time." And this is exactly the sense you get, over and over, from listening to Short Music -- a dramatization of the tension that once, during the mid-'80s dusk of Cold War and No Future, seemed one of punk's greatest themes: the constant feeling that time is about to run out.


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