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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What To Do? Wednesday's Pick: Jello Biafra & the Guantanamo School of Medicine

Posted By on Wed, Mar 3, 2010 at 7:00 AM

Jello Biafra & the Guantanamo School of Medicine @ Bottom of the Hill
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Songwriters who tackle topical issues always risk irrelevance: as soon as you mention current events in a song, you instantly stamp your art with an expiration date. Thus it has always been with Jello Biafra. And yet people somehow keep returning to his music, with young punks discovering Dead Kennedys even three decades later -- regardless of whether the kids have a goddamn clue who Pol Pot or Alexander Haig might've been. (Hint: they were both bastards. And now they're both dead.) Biafra's combination of politics, paranoia, satire, and sass comes built-in with a heightened sense of drama, giving even his most outdated songs a continuing power to unnerve and, perhaps paradoxically, entertain.

But what about his new stuff? Biafra's latest band (the Guantanamo School of Medicine) and studio album (The Audacity of Hype) both arrive on the scene with names that already feel dated. Wise-ass cultural references have an extraordinarily short shelf life in the Internet era, making Biafra's usual modus operandi -- twisting pop-cult phrases into satirical lyric-pretzels -- far more difficult than it used to be. For instance, songs like "Terror of Tiny Town," the album's opening jibe at Bush Junior, and "Clean As a Thistle," which references the Clinton impeachment scandal, might as well be cold leftovers for all their relevance today. It's a tough sell for a guy who's already past the half-century mark and needs to prove his continuing significance to the younger generation.

Fortunately the rest of the record attacks more pertinent topics like the irrational fear of crime and terrorism ("Panicland"), neoliberal corporate outsourcing ("New Feudalism"), and the fantasy of underdog rebellion ("Pets Eat Their Master"). And of course the music itself is built upon the familiar Biafra blend of charging hard rock, aggressively arty post-punk, and showtuney playfulness that sounds like a Broadway musical written by a whippit-huffing carny. So there is definitely some compelling noise to be found here. If you long for smart, confrontational, and occasionally comical politics mixed into your music, you'll probably be glad Biafra's still around. I mean, it's not like Steve Aoki, MSTRKRFT, or Chromeo are about to start dissecting global trade inequalities, y'know?

Jello Biafra & the Guantanamo School of Medicine perform tonight at Bottom of the Hill (9 p.m., $12)

For more Wednesday options, check out our calendar picks.

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John Graham

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