These days, rock ‘n’ roll is a quaint enough idea that bands still purely devoted to it feel like they have something to defend. It’s not enough to make an old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll record. No, instead, today’s generation of rock acts ascribing to principles and ethos now decades old must call attention to that very devotion. Recent albums by bands like Deer Tick and Japandroids, and now The Henry Clay People, are nothing if not self-aware. To make a rock record in 2012 is to make a record, in some part, about its own rock-ness, its own grasping onto a tradition. It’s why Japandroids’ recent, thrilling album is called Celebration Rock, why the lead single on Deer Tick’s most recent album is a Ronettes backbeat set to Rolling Stones half-mentions, and why The Henry Clay People’s latest centers around a song called “EveryBandWeEverLoved”.
It’s a desperate move, grasping onto something fleeting, which is how rock and roll always feels, is supposed to feel–like it’s going away– even if it’s been around longer. Or maybe because it’s been around longer– longer than anyone could have imagined. It takes a certain courageous naivety too, to try and make something new of the old. And so these bands have released records following this very assumption: pouring love and loyalty into a musical tradition over half a century old isn’t some sort of complacency, dad rock, or retromania, but a sort of brave statement. As Nitsuh Abebe recently wrote when talking about Japandroids, rock has become, once again, the underdog.
Add The Henry Clay People to this short list of bands defiantly waving rock and roll’s weathered flag in 2012. The name of the Los Angeles quartet’s third full-length album is a delicate cliché: Twenty Five For The Rest of Our Lives. Lead singer/songwriter Joey Siara and his bandmates are sharp enough to know it’s a cute idea, wanting to die before you grow old, being born to run, turning 25 forever. Rightfully, the title track starts off the album, with Siara boasting, “I want to turn 25 for the rest of our lives.” But even he begins to realize what he’s saying. It’s the thesis that the rest of the album both disproves and grasps onto. By the third track, “Hide”, turning 25 means something quite different: “The story’s boring,” he warns, as if to say “very un-rock and roll,” something we may have to hear even if we don’t want to. But it’s a story worth telling (and one all too true for many young-ish adults today): “We went to school ‘cause we do what we’re told/ and we found some jobs and paid off our loans/ then we lost our job/ so let your parents know/ that you’ll be moving home.”
It’s fitting that the inspiration behind the The Henry Clay People’s new album, as per the band itself, was as self-consciously, calculatingly naive as the album’s Peter Pan dreams. “I had this moment where I talked to my brother and we were like ‘What’s the point in doing this band if we’re just going to make old man’s music? We wanted to embrace the inner teenage in us.’” That the Henry Clay People’s brand of scrappy punk/garage rock, with debts to The Replacements (Robert Christgau has called this band “The Displacements”), The Ramones, and countless others, is anything but teenage music in 2012 is of course the great joke in Twenty Five For The Rest of Our Lives. The Henry Clay People, like Japandroids and Deer Tick, are not-so-young adults (Siara is pushing 30) making what’s supposed to sound like teenage music, which is part of the tension that drives the Henry Clay People’s most declarative album yet.
Clocking in at just 28 minutes, Twenty Five also has the best flow the band has assembled so far. While the highs last time around (“Slow Burn,” “This Ain’t A Scene”) still feel a bit higher, Twenty Five, even while it grasps at noise and disorder, comes together as a fully formed, mature statement of an album. Like Deer Tick’s Divine Providence and Japandroids’ Celebration Rock, the latest effort from Henry Clay people is full of sing-along call and responses that signify as much as they evoke, which isn’t a bad thing. Whether it’s the leading riff on “The Backseat of the Cab”, or the moment when the band somehow comes together on the glorious, sloppy “Keep Our Weekends Free”, Twenty Five For The Rest of Our Lives is full of music that recalls as much as it creates. The Henry Clay People’s music sound like dirty laundry: It’s worn-in, comfortable, and familiar. It has a story to tell.
If eternal youth is rock’s mythic promise, then Twenty Five For The Rest of Our Lives, while it still flirts and plays with that old idea, is in fact indebted to the long shelf life of that promise. It also wants to show off rock’s less exciting truth: that it also grows old and kind of just sticks around, waiting for another group of restless kids– maybe they’re 15, or 25, or even 30– to find it and (even if just momentarily) make it feel young again.
Essential Tracks: “Hide”, “EveryBandWeEverLoved”, and “The Backseat of the Cab”