Punk with a thinker’s forehead: With the new album “Artisans & Merchants” the US band The Van Pelt remembers good times in songs devoid of any nostalgia.
“The photos were all blurry / But you get the feeling that they scream”: Blurred memories dominate “Punk Song,” New Jersey’s The Van Pelt’s first sign of life in 25 years. In it, singer Chris Leo reviews the time in the mid-nineties when he and his band toured small punk and underground clubs in the USA and Europe: “I don’t remember much about the show that we played / Except that no one could make out a single word I had to say”.
The song is accompanied by a video that underscores this look back into one’s own past: blurred Super 8 recordings from the road, photos from the tour bus, snapshots from backstage rooms. Twentysomethings, who look at the world in a shy and angry, optimistic and naive way, while Chris Leo, who is 25 years his senior, conjures up a feeling between failure and defiance in the face of the memories that have become images.
The song attempts to convey a “mixture of nostalgia and disappointment,” Leo explains in an interview, a perspective that applies to the entire Artisans & Merchants album, which Chris Leo co-authored with Brian Maryransky, Neil O’Brian and Sean P. Greene, the 1997 cast, recorded.
No glorification of the past
Whereby this nostalgia never has a glorifying effect, it is not an evocation of better times or a celebration of eternal youth, rather it aims to take stock and document the structures from which the band originated, the imprint that this living environment had on one’s own biography.
The Van Pelt: “Artisans & Merchants” (La Castanya/Gringo)
Even though The Van Pelt were miles away musically from the politicized punk scene of the nineties, they learned self-empowerment in this world, the do-it-yourself approach and artistic thinking free of narrow generic terms.
The band released two albums in the mid-90s on underground New Jersey label Gern Blendsten, specializing in post-punk sound: Stealing from Our Favorite Thieves (1996) and then Sultans of Sentiment the year after. At that time, their music was either classified as “emo” or “indie rock”, but they were wrongly cast in both categories.
For emo, the poetic and yet political lyrics sound too directed towards one another, for indie rock the music is too broken and reserved. “Stealing from Our Favorite Thieves” is still dominated by distorted guitars and the characteristic, overturning and more spoken than sung vocals of Chris Leo, who in his lyrics questions the political in the personal with the urgency of youth, sings about being lost in society and the pressure to live up to the expectations of the adult world.
tranquility and company
With the second album “Sultans of Sentiment” the band had learned to formulate their approach in quieter tones, in quiet songs that reported in poetic words about encounters and personal experiences, from which questions about social contexts could always be derived. This album in particular established the cult status of The Van Pelt, which arose after their dissolution through word-of-mouth propaganda, copied tapes and MP3 files among future generations of people socialized with punk.
In 2014, the Spanish label La Castanya released unreleased recordings of the band entitled “The Imaginary Third”. They were originally planned for a third album that was never released. In 2022, early demo recordings were released on tape in a mini edition. And now there is “Artisans & Merchants”, which continues the musical approach of The Van Pelt.
coffee with gin
Almost all songs adopt the perspective of “Punk Song”, look in the rear-view mirror, relate the present to the past, reconstruct fragments of biographical memories. “Miles from the memories of Cafe Florent / Where the days became the nights and the nights the days / Where we drank coffee spiked with gin / With the aging drag queens”, says the opening song “We Gotta Leave”. Musically, the stardust of memory lies on everything, glittering keyboards indicate that a quarter of a century has passed in which families were founded, professions learned, lives lived.
The focus is not on trying to imitate the past – the past is only outlined in the lyrics – rather the songs radiate a calmness, not having to prove anything to anyone anymore. The band has gotten older with their listeners, the positive excitement of the dawn of the nineties is passé. But just like back then, The Van Pelt are consciously opposed to expectations and at the end of the present they look deep into their eyes: “In your eyes I see a past / A past that I must have lived through too”.
The song is called “Old Souls from Different Epochs”. Like the old souls from the last millennium, the present band still has a lot to say.
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