Coming back from having my mind scraped out of my head via my nostrils this weekend in Holland, it seems an especially appropriate time to take a second look at 4, by my fellow Garden Staters, The Atomic Bitchwax. It originally came out in a limited edition of 1,000 last year via MeteorCity, but Tee Pee has a version for 2009 with new, octopus-centric artwork, a revised track list and a Paul Gold mastering job, and since it was just this past friday that I saw the trio have their way with a full room at the 013 Popcentrum in Tilburg as part of the Roadburn festival, the songs are still stuck in my head — which, given the amount of music with which I was assaulted at that festival, says something right off the bat about just how damn catchy this band is.
When 4 was first released, I think it caught a lot of longtime Bitchwax fans, myself included, off guard. Not only did the inclusion of Monster Magnet drummer Bob Pantella as a replacement for the one way or another departed Keith Ackerman (who has since joined seminal Jersey doomers Solace) significantly change the character of the trio, but the overall sound of the album took the smoother approach the band first hinted at with 2005′s 3 and veered from with the Jack Endino-produced studio tracks on 2006′s Boxriff and put it central to the album’s aesthetic. The Atomic Bitchwax, with a pop sheen? Really?
What remained constant with 4 then, and what holds up on this new Tee Pee release more than anything, is the quality of the songwriting. Bassist/vocalist Chris Kosnik has a natural talent for pop structures that over the course of the Bitchwax‘s decade-plus existence he’s been able to refine to a point where a song like “Daisy Chain,” while ultimately not one of the album’s most memorable tracks, is an immediate reminder of itself when listened to again. More mature cuts like “Revival” — which moves from track five of 11 to the leadoff spot — turn out to be some of the strongest material present. “Wreck You,” the original closer here preceding “Pawn Shop” (which only works as an intro or outro and with “Revival” opening really has nowhere else to go) hardly tackles deep world issues lyrically, but musically and in terms of presentation and construction is as suitable a piece of quality traditional pop rock as could be found anywhere.
The question is one of commerciality vs. accessibility. Kosnik being such a strong songwriter, and guitarist/vocalist Finn Ryan (ex-Core) being so well suited to his style and bringing so much flair in his lead playing, the only thing I’m left wondering is where are The Atomic Bitchwax going with this? Is this a grab for radio attention or an exoposition of straightforward rock influences? Could a band with a name like The Atomic Bitchwax ever really have commercial interests? I’ve been a fan for years, have every record they’ve made, have interviewed Kosnik on more than one occasion, wrote their bio for Boxriff when MeteorCity put it out and have seen them more times than I can count, and I still don’t own a t-shirt because I know I’d feel awkward wearing it out to dinner with my wife.
At the same time, The Atomic Bitchwax have a strong and dedicated underground following and particularly with their earlier material have had a sizeable influence on the stoner rock scene, so there’s no reason they couldn’t make a run of it on a bigger scale. Stranger things have happened (like Meat Puppets), but given the single-focused iPod commercial indie garbage and emo wimpering dominating rock trends these days, I have to wonder if there’s a space for the Bitchwax out there somewhere other than where they are now. Again, that’s not to say it couldn’t happen — I’d be thrilled for them if it did so long as it didn’t take a Goo Goo Dolls-type selling out.
Of course, all this is speculation and the larger issue is where 4 stands in the larger context of the Bitchwax discography. Fans of the old days will be fans of the old days; there’s so little bands can do about that that they might as well just let it be. Taken for what it is, with an open mind, 4 is a work of monumentously accomplished pop songcraft that may stray from the band’s shitkicking past but does so with enough confidence and residual bravado to be worth subsequent investigations and repeat listens. Its edges have been buffed, but it rocks. I remain a fan.
Tags: New Jersey, Tee Pee, The Atomic Bitchwax