When Joel Tannenbaum’s formerly defunct band Plow United decided to perform their first set in more than thirteen years at 2011‘s Riot Fest East, it whipped him into a songwriting frenzy.
Normally, such creative outbursts are elusive and considered invaluable, but it presented Tannenbaum a unique problem: “It became clear to me very quickly that I was writing way too fast for Plow to ever accommodate it,” he says, “and I started looking for other ways to deal with that.” So, as he rehearsed classic songs with and introduced new material to his reforming band, Tannenbaum decided to record a demo of additional songs with his friend Jayme Guokas.
Weeks later, prior to Plow United’s Riot Fest performance at Philadelphia’s Festival Pier, Tannenbaum bumped into drummer JP Flexner, who was playing drums for Weston, backstage. Both musicians were soaring, excited about their bands’ recent reunions and the enthusiastic audience. “We were both basically having the best day of our lives,” he remembers. “We were happy and excited, and I was like, ‘I have these songs. Would you like to do this?’ and he said, ‘Yes!’”
Initially, Ex Friends became a band in a bright flash of prolificacy with one end in mind: To provide a platform for Tannenbaum to continue writing his raw, snarky punk-rock songs. “The motivation was having a place for these songs to live, knowing that Plow was never going to be in the studio enough to do really deal with it,” he says. But Tannenbaum’s band continues because they understand that what makes punk-rock raw and snarky exists somewhere beneath the surface.
It didn’t take long (two or three mere months) for Ex Friends to record their first EP. Released by Paper and Plastick toward the end of 2012, No Wonder We Prefer the Dark features five slimy, greasy songs, some of which slide away from the listener in eighty seconds. During the chorus of “So Many Kisses”, Guokas’ guitar slithers up and down Tannenbaum’s guttural, growling chords; meanwhile, on “Waimanalo Confidential”, Audrey Crash’s bass hops with playful abandon from beat to beat as guitars drip and dribble onto Flexner’s frantic rhythm. Considering he manner in which Tannenbaum’s coarse snarl knocks into Crash’s yelp on each track, it’d be impossible to present Ex Friends as anything other than punk-rock.
But one of the features of punk-rock is its deceiving simplicity, and a single listen to the lyrics of No Wonder We Prefer the Dark reveals Tannenbaum’s ability to say something poignant, intelligent, and meaningful—even as it’s embedded in each song’s grimy energy. According to Tannenbaum, two ideas stretch across this debut EP—one that’s nice, and one that’s not so nice. “The nice idea is that life is painful, but that people who are feeling pain maybe have more in common than they think they do,” he explains. “The flip side of the coin is that people tell themselves a lot of lies to get them through the day, and the lies become toxic and corrosive and hypocritical, and we should be talking about them.”
Twisted Around, the band’s five-song follow-up, pushes this formula in an even more effective direction. The songs still buzz, still bounce, but do so in way that seems simultaneously larger and leaner, coarser and cleaner. Likewise, Tannenbaum’s lyrics, which convey clearer philosophies, bite harder. A song like “Punk Rock Wedding, Punk Rock Divorce” celebrates the DIY ideology while using searing wit to describe the spectacle of hipster love, whereas “Model Minority” presents the eye-opening dilemma of living up to the mainstream’s expectations, even at the expense of remaining loyal to one’s culture; during the second verse, Tannenbaum growls, “When I fuck up, I fuck up as me / When you fuck up, supposedly, you’re letting down a community / And it’s all right there for everyone to see.”
Ex Friends expertly navigates the narrow space between punk-rock’s reckless aesthetic and melodic finesse, its intellect and brainless intuition. Some might call this sweet-spot pop-punk, but Tannenbaum wonders if that term’s subjectivity obscures its meaning. “The pop-punk thing is confusing because I can never figure out to what degree it’s about certain musical formulas and to what degree it’s about something else,” he says. “I know there’s something everyone else except for me understands. As far as I can tell, what makes pop-punk what it is is major chord progressions played at a certain tempo. But then, when I go back and listen to more punky-punk stuff that I like from the late-70s and early-80s, a lot of those songs are in major keys too.”
Though Tannenbaum wonders if pop-punk is, indeed, what he’s writing, he doesn’t linger on this dilemma for too long. Regardless of whatever everyone else calls it, he knows that the punk-rock he’s performing contains passion, power, movement, and real meaning—the sort of things that cause a person to go on a songwriting frenzy, and to start a new band while he’s reconstructing his old one.
Tannenbaum recorded these songs from his friend Spencer's apartment in South Philly on a chilly winter afternoon a few days after the new year. Instead of playing acoustic guitar, he played "a fake ES-335" semi-hollowbody clean through an amp. He taped the telephone's receiver to his guitar case, the perfect placement to accommodate the recording.
"Punk Rock Wedding, Punk Rock Divorce" appears on Ex Friends' 2013 record titled Twisted Around. As of its recording, "Rich Kid School" is unreleased, though intended for Ex Friends' anticipated full-length. "Human 2000" is a Plow United song and appears on the 2013 record titled Marching Band. "Ivy League College" is a J Church cover; the song originally appeared on their 1995 single of the same name.
Visit the band's Bandcamp page for more music.
To download these tracks, click on the song titles and download them from the player at SoundCloud.com.
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