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Green Day play it smart on Nimrod

By Ted Drozdowski

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  Green Day have dropped another load of Dookie upon us. By which I mean the band have made a big pile of new songs as good as those on their 1994 breakthrough album -- songs that literally caused a near-riot when Green Day played Boston's Hatch Shell that summer.

The event, perhaps even more than the 10 million copies Dookie sold worldwide, was a testament to the enduring power of three-chord rock. If you can stir some 70,000 people so deeply with music that their agitation becomes uncontainable and the police figure they need dogs and reinforcements to bottle it up . . . well, you know you're reaching your audience.

The 18 songs on Green Day's new Nimrod (Reprise), which hits stores on Tuesday, will reach an audience as well. That's the point of formula songwriting, which is what Green Day -- intentionally or not -- plumb. Their songs are all simple, three-chord affairs. Except for tunes like Nimrod's "Take Back" and "Platypus," which thunder along at hardcore's pace and volume, Green Day do the loud/soft thing with verses and choruses that Nirvana got nearly every under-25 ear accustomed to. Their rhythms are crisp, precise, and driving; drummer Mike Dirnt always lays down something to keep toes tapping or heads bobbing up and down. Tré Cool brings a good sense of harmony to the bass lines that underpin Billie Joe Armstrong's unvarnished guitar chords. And it's all slammed home by Armstrong's vocal melodies.

If listening to Dookie or '95's lackluster Insomniac or the new Nimrod makes you wonder why Green Day have had so many hits (four Top 10s from Dookie, the number one soundtrack cut "J.A.R.," and "Brain Stew/Jaded" from Insomniac) while so many other punk-inclined groups (Seattle stalwarts Mudhoney, for example) have been plugging away twice as long with little recognition -- well, listen closer to Billie Joe's singing. That's the key to Green Day's success. Sure, he warbles through his nose in a cheesy limey accent (less so on Nimrod), but he's always pairing his concise, well-enunciated lyrics with melodies so clean and easy to follow, they stick in your brain after just a few passes. Forty-two years ago another technically mediocre vocalist -- Chuck Berry -- did the same thing with "Maybellene," and it's worked ever since for every bum singer from Dylan to Billy Corgan.

Now let me state the ultimate heresy of punk rock (which, by consensus among Armstrong, Cool, Dirnt, and their fans, is what Green Day are reputed to play): Barry Manilow writes better structured, more musically varied and informed songs than Green Day.

Okay, put down those burning torches. Nearly everybody with a pulse knows Barry Manilow's songs pretty much eat it, regardless of their musical virtues. My point is this: musicianship and imagination are great, but for music to be great -- to become larger than itself and touch people -- there needs to be a connection. And Barry just ain't making it, at least not for us.

Which is why creating by formula -- and without much inspired musicianship or imagination -- isn't always a bad thing. Certainly not on Nimrod or Dookie. Good formulas work, and whenever the recipe is followed to the letter, with the best ingredients, the result is always the same: connection. Ask Stephen King or Roger Corman or Brooks & Dunn or Whitney Houston or any of their fans.

That point made, I'd like to write off Insomniac, which pretty much sucked out loud. What happened? Green Day went back into the studio too quickly after Dookie. The tunes were written hastily on the road; the formula wasn't exercised with the energy or craft that made Dookie resonate. I think Green Day knew this, but as pop musicians they're aware that tastes can turn quickly. So Insomniac was hammered out to ride the coattails of Dookie's success and make a bunch of money while it was guaranteed at least a couple million in sales no matter what its quality. (This is known in the industry as "Making hay while the sun shines.")

When Green Day focus their attention on an album like Nimrod, which they did by canceling their spring '96 European tour to rest and write new songs, their shit works. The same way shit from Stephen King or Roger Corman or Brooks & Dunn or Whitney Houston works. So they're not gonna screw with it.

Sure, Green Day throw a few unpunk flourishes like harmonica and strings into some of the new songs. But these are easily explained. "Good Riddance," for example, is an outright acoustic number in which Billie Joe muses over the memories of a lifetime. Save for the song's title, it's unironically sentimental. With its honey-dripping violins and one-man strumming, I'd also wager it's a bullshit attempt to prove some kind of artistic depth, growth, or maturity. It feels more like an obligation of conscience than a song on this album. I figure that after milking formula for two multi-platinum CDs, Armstrong's feeling a little itchy to prove he's not just milking formula. Well, he can't fool us. Especially since almost every other tune on Nimrod milks formula.

Then there's "Last Ride In," an instrumental that sounds like a rehearsal jam that never went anywhere except, for some unfathomable reason, onto this album. If Nimrod were a Roger Corman film, this would be the point where you'd get up to pee or grab a beer. So I'd urge you to treat "Last Ride In" as if it were one of the laboratory scenes in Carnosaur.

Yet you have to respect Billie Joe's instincts when it comes to recycling. Not only has he co-opted the sound of punk rock as patented by the Ramones and Sex Pistols, he digs another decade deeper into the garage to take cues from '60s icons as varied as Iggy Pop, the Flaming Groovies, the Kinks, and the Beatles.

That's one reason I don't believe Green Day are a punk-rock band. Punk rock in the '70s and early '80s, when it was fresh and vital, was a forward-looking music, interested in subverting everything -- including its own bareknuckled sound (check old Pere Ubu, Bush Tetras, Gang of Four, and Mission of Burma CDs). Green Day's boilerplate sound and songs about being bored with the USA are stagnant. Green Day don't change their tune, literally or lyrically.

Besides, the band's melodicism is more akin to '60s rock and roll than '70s punk. There are numbers like "Platypus" where the vocal harmonies are merely the unison blurting that's one of punk's signifiers, but for the most part they're layered with a very unpunk attention to craft. Sure, on their early albums the Ramones, Patti Smith, and even Burma and Gang of Four were all good vocal melodists, but the priority during recording was on the immediacy of performances. And harmonies were often avoided to let a single voice carry the song's message. That's a notion that's really punk rock: one voice standing alone behind what it believes.

You can hear an amalgamation of '60s influences in Nimrod's "Hitchin' a Ride," where Billie Joe sounds like a higher-voiced Iggy backed by the Groovies playing through Dave Davies's amps. And Green Day's harmonies at their most melodic here are textbook Beatles, or maybe Badfinger if you're listening to the chorus of "Redundant."

Sometimes I hear things that scare me. Could there really be anything of America's atrocious-but-infectious '70s hit "Sister Goldenhair" in the vocal phrasing on the verse of "Scattered"? Or is my brain feeling the strain of trying to autopsy too many rock albums that don't really have anything inside them?

There's even a flavor of polka and strip joints to the music of "King for a Day." And while we're on the subject of recycling, check the title of the opening "Nice Guys" and the chorus hook ("Nice guys finish last"). Yes, Green Day's formula includes a generous number of clichés.

But that doesn't bug me. Because what all this borrowing and recycling and sonic codifying amounts to is simply this: Green Day are a pop act. Same as Whitney Houston. And I don't expect anything particularly deep or original from a pop act. What I do expect is what Nimrod songs like "Nice Guys," "Scattered," "Redundant," "Platypus," and a handful more provide: that occasional connection with the beat or the lyric or the sound. When that happens, Green Day rock my world. For three minutes at a clip.

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