REVIEW: Decsendents – 9th and Walnut

9th and Walnut is a record with a relatively unusual genesis. Named after the address of Descendents’ first practice space, it consists of a group of songs from that early, pre-fame version of the band before singer Milo Aukerman joined. The instrumental parts were recorded in the early noughties by a reconvened version of that early line-up. The vocals only materialised last year, when Aukerman was sent the recordings and added his singing to them. By rights, this record shouldn’t really work.

And to be perfectly honest, it doesn’t fully. There is always something strange about older bands singing songs they wrote as much younger people, the youthful lyrical concerns and world view sounding a bit off when delivered by an adult with far more water under the bridge of their life. That feeling is particularly pronounced here with this being the first recorded appearance for most of these songs. Unless you happened to be around Southern California in the late 70s, it’s unlikely you had any experience of the band at the time they were composing and playing the songs.

The songs are overtly adolescent in their lyrical outlook, and broad to the point of occasionally coming across as a parody of disaffected youth. There is a repeated focus on alienation, rejection, self-righteous disgust for others, and the supposedly bad behaviour of other people, usually female. Song titles like ‘Yore Disgusting’, ‘Tired of Being Tired’ and ‘You Make Me Sick’ give a pretty accurate indication of the lyrical content. At best, many of the lyrics come across as juvenile and shallow, at worst the presentation of women borders troublingly on the misogynistic. ‘Crepe Suzette’, with its refrain of “I’d kill you right now / But you’re a little out of range” might be intended as tongue in cheek, but it’s hard to raise a smile at words like these.

The lyrics stand in contrast with their later, more popular work and offer evidence of how much they grew up and developed by the time they became the band responsible for the all-time classic Milo Goes to College.

Whilst the lyrics suffer from having been rescued from cryogenic freezing and delivered without editing, it’s a different story when it comes to the music. Although the song-writing isn’t as good as their later work, the songs (most of them barely a minute long) rattle along with youthful abandon. The breakneck drums, walking basslines and frenetic punk guitar playing that they would refine to devastating effect are all in evidence here. It’s forceful enough to compensate (mostly) for the lyrics and is aided by the high quality of the production. Whilst the playing calls to mind many of the heavyweights of the early 80s California punk and hardcore scenes, the production has a cleanliness and a sparkle that, rather than softening the songs’ impact, lends it extra punch.

The net result is strange, a cosplay of sorts. In some ways this is a record straight out of the late 70s, but the voices and production remind the listener that it’s adults revisiting that time and stage in their lives. The effect is slightly disconcerting. A couple of songs, ‘Nightage’ and ‘To Remember’, work so well that you forget this temporarily. It’s perhaps no surprise that the songs have the best choruses on the record, Aukerman’s vocals interacting with the backing singing to powerful effect.

Overall, though, this is a strange museum piece of a record. It joins the dots between the band that they were and the band that they became, functioning as both a waymarker and a point of comparison. Bands revisiting their early years have produced far worse results than this, and listening to this is an engaging way to spend half an hour. But it won’t go down as one of the highlights in their discography, or even an essential release.

Words by Will Collins.

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