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ALBUM REVIEWS / POP

Vandals Wipe the Smirk Off

*** VANDALS "Hitler Bad, Vandals Good" Nitro

October 02, 1998|MIKE BOEHM

"Hitler Bad, Vandals Good" is a sweet, poignant, charming, innocent punk-pop album. It therefore marks the most sudden and unexpected personality transformation since Ebenezer Scrooge met the ghosts of Christmas. It's the best work the Vandals have done since "Peace Thru Vandalism," the 1982 EP that launched these O.C. punk-rock perennials on their long-running career as--heretofore--the snidest guns in the West.

When last heard from on record in 1996, the Vandals were running true to snottily satiric form, serving as an audio Mad magazine for punk kids. "The Quickening" aimed to instill in young fans a perhaps necessary skepticism about such institutions as marriage and career; the only soft spot it reserved was for guitarist Warren Fitzgerald's dearly departed pet doggy.

"Oi to the World," the Vandals' holiday release that year, was full of such Christmas jeers as "Grandpa's Last Christmas," about the inconvenience of having to include senile relations in one's celebrations.

Twisted jokes and social broadsides have been the Vandals' trademarks since the beginning; the satiric mission didn't change with the nearly complete overhauling of the band during the mid-to-late '80s that yielded the current lineup.

Now Fitzgerald, bassist Joe Escalante (the only holdover from the debut EP), singer Dave Quackenbush and drummer Josh Freese are about to celebrate 10 years together. During that time they've regularly toured and recorded while maintaining such outside interests as lawyering (Escalante), running a beer distributorship (Quackenbush), playing in Oingo Boingo and producing paintings with alarmingly violent subject matter (Fitzgerald) and winning recognition as an A-list session drummer to such stars as Paul Westerberg and Axl Rose (Freese).

Whether they received a spooky visitation, are mellowing with age or just wanted to play against type for a change, the Vandals have switched from smirking humor to sweet-natured humor, from spitting raspberries to giving hugs. On two songs, they even whistle while they work.

The album opens with "People That Are Going to Hell," a song that, with the excision of a mild expletive or two, could work for an edgy Christian rock band. The Fitzgerald composition places its faith in divine justice nabbing in the hereafter those who get away with murder in the here-and-now.

Stylistically, it announces a catchy-but-crunchy approach that makes "Hitler Bad" the Vandals' most melodic record in years. Fitzgerald, who continues to show lots of ability as a producer, has stripped down his formerly prolific guitar approach, which included lots of metal-ish whanging and whinnying, in favor of honed playing in which the emphatic drive and concise fills precisely mirror and match the propulsiveness and economy of Freese's excellent drumming.

Consequently, the Vandals now hurtle with the bracing forward momentum and zooming purposefulness of their punk-pop label mates, One Hit Wonder.

Love songs--funny ones, but love songs nonetheless--account for six of the 14 tracks. Freese's "Cafe 405" portrays a fellow smitten with a winsome hot-dog stand attendant at the Westminster Mall; although it includes some food-related sexual double-entendre, it's essentially an innocent account of a shy-guy's big crush.

"My Girlfriend's Dead"--one of the songs that employs a bit of the merry whistling you expect to hear in Disneyland, not punkland--is as poignantly human as it is humorous: Dumped by his flame, a guy is so distraught that he can't bring himself to tell his friends that she's left him; instead, he makes up fanciful tales about her demise, ranging from bulimia to accidental beheading. "I guess there's a part of me that likes the sympathy," he muses.

In "Too Much Drama," the Vandals get a co-writing assist from Dexter Holland of the Offspring (who is also the label boss at Nitro) and come up with the most poignant song of their career.

It's a wittily conceived, yet devastating look at a kid who has been shunted aside by his divorced, preoccupied parents and looks for consolation to the cohesive family units of TV reruns from the '50s and '60s.

Off for a weekend with real Dad,

But the only thing real is how real bad.

He just wants his life to be black and white;

Those people never fight.

If he could Xerox a home from the talking picture box,

He wouldn't have to hurt so bad.

The next song, a cover of "Come Out Fighting" by Pennywise, rides a rousing, scrape-and-pummel groove while giving encouragement to kids facing the sort of adversity detailed in "Too Much Drama."

It's not just another punk-rock pep talk, though--there's implicit pain, poignancy and an acknowledgment of the fragility and difficulty of life in the Vandals' dedication of the track to its writer, Jason Thirsk, who died a suicide.

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