When the Presidents of the United States of America appeared on the music scene, the radio waves were awash with other Seattle-based groups. After the self-loathing of Nirvana and the moody posturing of Pearl Jam, the Presidents’ carefree pop-punk was a breath of fresh air. The band’s self-titled debut, buoyed by hits like Lump and Peaches, was heartily embraced as the Prozac alternative to grunge rockers everywhere.
However, the novelty of the Presidents’ sound soon wore off. A sophomore attempt to continue their success flopped, and the band became lost amidst the waves of musical crazes that swept throughout the country. (Does anyone remember ska?) The grunge sound is now a hazy memory. Anger in music has found a new style: rap-metal. Bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit have taken up the slack, providing anthems for the hordes of anti-social middle-schoolers who might have grown up loving Marilyn Manson if he hadn’t gone glam. Despite the change in name of the genre, angst is back in style.
In this climate, the Presidents’ third release, Freaked Out & Small, seems out of place. Armed with a new arsenal of delightfully superficial ditties, the band manages to escape the bitter cynicism that plagues most alternative bands. Instead, the Presidents’ seem blissfully ignorant of pop culture. Their songs cover topics as irrelevant as girl drummers and the destruction of the Death Star. Like the Brit-pop band Supergrass, the Presidents’ play straight-ahead rock and roll, spiced up by the sound of a very retro organ.
Freaked Out & Small is essentially ear candy. For a solid half-hour, the listener is able to forget his troubles and enjoy song after song of catchy riffs and sing-along choruses. The hooks in the songs aren’t especially original, but aren’t forgettable, either. You will find yourself sucked into the music, and might find it hard to extricate these songs from your subconscious.
But without major airplay, the Presidents of the United States of America have no opportunity to ensnare the great number of fans needed to make this album commercially successful. Blink-182 now rules as the kings of comedic relief in alternative rock, and it doesn’t look as if they’re going to be dethroned anytime soon. The Presidents might have gotten their start in the underground punk scene, but they are damned by past mainstream popularity and a major label record contract.
Despite this gloomy forecast, the Presidents are putting on a brave, happy face. There are no hints on the album of inner tension. No break-ups look likely in the near future if Freaked Out & Small doesn’t do well. The band will continue to play music with a fun mood and message that is charmingly timeless – but it seems to be more timeless like a coloring book than the roof of the Sistine Chapel.