During the peak of American pop-punk in the 90s, around the time that Green Day made the jump to a major label and set upon a road to megastardom, their one-time label mates Pansy Division released their first full-length. ‘Undressed’ brought pop-punk greatness and the band used their art to spread love and understanding of gay culture, often with with a huge sense of humour. Over the next fifteen years, this out and proud stance, combined with more musical talent than some of their peers (trying hard not to point too much at Pounded Clown here) gained Pansy Division a loyal following. 2016’s ‘Quite Contrary’ – their ninth album, released via the legendary Alternative Tentacles label – breaks a seven year recording silence with some of their best original material to date and a fantastic cover tune.
‘He’s Trouble’ starts the album brilliantly with a sharp rhythm and rolling drum before breaking into a melodic power pop arrangement chock full of ringing guitars. Within seconds, frontman Jon Ginoli’s slightly nasal vocal is easily recognisable and all the key features of a Pansy Division classic are in place. Lyrically, it tells the tale of a meeting at a party and getting the brush off, since the object of affection knows he’s on a road to ruin…or, indeed, as the title more than implies, he’s trouble. All of this is served up with a knowing wink and wry grin, while the addition of harmonious counter vocals stoke up the power pop elements on a great chorus. Even better, ‘You’re On The Phone’ utilises a world of choppy, muted guitars a la Cars and melds those to a guitar-oriented pop harmony from the Jane Wiedlin school of melody. It’s one of those tunes that’s completely infectious and deserves to be splashed across the radio. The chorus might be a little simplistic, but it suits the tune in hand, while the vocals too step up and eventually deliver some bubblegum goodness. If you’ve never heard Pansy Division before, this is a tune that needs checking out ASAP.
Chosen as the lead single, ‘Blame The Bible’ tackles a glammy stomp, driven by a huge guitar chug and solid drumming, with Jon’s slightly sarcastic voice finding a space somewhere between a Jello Biafra sneer and a supermarket announcement. The largely spoken verses challenge homosexuality within religious circles, the denial within and those who openly hate due to their religious “beliefs”. In the times of the Westboro Baptists and open bigotry within US politics, the timing of this track could not be better, but looking beyond the socio-political message, the music is equally strong. Far more retro power pop than punk, the band sound tight with ex-Mr. T Experience man Joel chucking out huge chords, while a melodic chorus vocal shows how these guys really know their way around a great pop-rock hook. The tongue-in-cheek ‘Is This What It’s Like Getting Old’ strips things down to a semi-acoustic strum, blending the power pop with a surprising country lilt. The perils of age in this case include feeling less popular due to a lack of phone calls, an increase in alcohol intake, more tea drinking and the realisation that the protagonist has to “sit down to pee”. The most surprising thing all is that there’s a suggestion that he actually likes it, that he’s accepted the little life changes. The country aspects might make this somewhat of a novelty among arguably better material, but the main hook is one you’ll find yourselves thinking about unexpectedly. ‘I’m The Friend’, meanwhile, reworks themes of friendship as if life were an amateur dramatics theatre show and while having a wobbly start, eventually works out due to an increased use of guitars that eventually reach an emo-ish peak. Against some of the other material, it feels a bit lightweight, but it’s likeable, nonetheless.
Blending a sound that fuses the best of The Go-Go’s with MTX, ‘Love Came Along’ is one of the records more overtly gay songs with the protagonist recounting past promiscuities and carefree times with an equally carefree viewpoint, but musing upon how that all changed when he met the right guy. Granted, if you’re remotely homophobic, you won’t find this entertaining…but then if you’re remotely homophobic, you’re not going within a mile of a Pansy Division record anyway, so it’s kind of a moot point. Musically, once more, they hit the nail on the head by mixing their pop-punk traditions with some great power pop elemements; while this doesn’t especially differ from a couple of other tracks, the heavy use of muted rhythms – as if they could break into The Cars‘ ‘Just What I Needed’ at any given second – just never gets old; in fact, you could say that musical slant acts as a centrepiece for the whole album. ‘Halfway To Nowhere’ comes across as an odd hybrid, utilising classic pop-punk drive with a noisier almost metallic guitar sound. While the heavier guitars don’t detract from a great song, there’s a feeling this might have worked better with a bit of a retro rock and roll twang, especially since a loud and overdriven guitar solo fits perfectly with a more rockabilly sensibility. The chorus seems too simple to begin with, but sometimes simplicity is key and this is another track you’ll remember long after listening. The wonky guitar pop of ‘Work On It, Babe’ tips the hat to older power pop bands like The Rubinoos and Earthquake but just about clings onto Pansy’s pop-punk roots. The sugary elements within the song sometimes make the vocals sound like a wobbly reinterpretation of Michael Stipe while the chorus adds an element of camp. From a hooky, power pop perspective, this is certainly up there with ‘You’re On The Phone’ and is definitely an album highlight.
The aforementioned cover tune is an absolute belter. Previously we’ve heard Pansy Division put their stamp on Joe Jackson, Husker Du, Green Day, Judas Priest and Nirvana. This time, Pet Shop Boys’ ‘It’s a Sin’ gets the Pansy Division treatment. They’ve played it fairly faithfully – wisely realising you just can’t mess with such a superb song – choosing only to trade in the synths and programmed parts for a wall of guitars, delivered throughout with a Bob Mould-esque sheet of noise style, backed by a steady rhythm. With a couple of filters and thoughtful harmonies, it features one of the album’s best vocals, a sheer post-hardcore melodicism making this an essential listen. Stretching out to almost five minutes, the album closer ‘Something Beautiful’ mightn’t punch in the same way as a couple of the best album tracks, but the longer duration allows the quartet to experiment a touch, resulting in some great jangle pop that’s closer in spirit to 90s bands from the Fort Apache Studios than anything spawned from the Cali pop-punk scene. It’s a break-up scenario seen through rose tints, a bittersweet tale that counterbalances the relationship barbs and brush-off’s elsewhere; it’s lyrically thoughtful, vocally melodic to a point. Whilst tracks like ‘Work On It, Babe’ and ‘You’re On The Phone’ provide easily accessible power pop blasts to return to for some feelgood vibes, this is one of those tracks where it takes longer for the goodness to come through. A downbeat closer for sure, but it gives the album a maturity and depth of which some of the early works would have only ever dreamed. It might mean something different to different ears, but few would argue against it being a perfectly appropriate footnote to a solid LP.
With a sharper production than some of their previous releases, some well-arranged material and a few key messages – which in parts of the US at the time of release are in need of being heard louder than ever – ‘Quite Contrary’ is a great album. There are a couple of times Pansy Division miss the mark musically, but on the whole, this marks a very welcome return for the undisputed champions of queercore.