“You don’t even notice me when I’m not around, when I don’t seem down,” Sonia Sturino sings on Weakened Friends’ new album Common Blah. The lyric is meant to be personal in the context of the track, the angsty “Aches,” with its stretchy, taffy-like guitar riffs and plaintive vocals. But if viewed from a few steps back, Sturino’s complaint could be about rock music at large in an industry that — right now anyway — really doesn’t care about it.
While that's true in the macro, Weakened Friends don’t actually have a problem with getting noticed. They’re probably Portland’s most widely popular rock band at the moment, with solid label, booking and media support and actual fans outside of the state of Maine. They don’t have to just play for their friends and family anymore, which is — sadly, perhaps — a contemporary hallmark of having “made it.” (Bands: if you’ve sold a ticket to a person you don’t know, you are basically the Beatles.) That’s just what the music industry is like now — flooded with content, most of it mediocre, with a disinterested and economically depressed consumer base.
Back to those creative choices, though! While hip hop has been enjoying a period of creative progress and a unifying core narrative, it’s been a very long minute since rock has had a unifying sound or ethos, with the last big pop musical movements in America — the concurrent early ‘90s emergences of both grunge and ‘classic’ hip hop — affecting everything after them in waves to this day. In the case of grunge, itself a response to punk and its upside-down cousin ‘80s glam rock, first-wave versions gave way to a hugely popular group of mainstream artists (Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, don’t act like you don’t know, dude) that then paved the way for genres like post-grunge, nu-metal, emo, screamo, pop-punk and, now, almost 30 years later, some sort of crossroads of vintage grunge and feminist pop-punk at which Weakened Friends finds itself perched.
Listening to Common Blah is a frustrating experience. I suspect that that is by design, that the album is meant to reflect the ennui, fear and anger of the trio of Sturino (guitar, vocals), Annie Hoffman (bass, vocals) and Cam Jones (drums), a team capable enough that they don’t have to write frustrating songs if they don’t want to. It's also exceptionally well done. Everything about it is empirically “good,” but I don’t want to dwell on that here. I want to explore the cultural relevance of this art work, because it opens a fascinating window into history and, potentially, our future.
Grunge is kind of making a comeback right now. Makes sense, because usually around the 30-year mark, cultural phenomena seem to roll back around. George Bush, Sr. was elected in 1988 and for Gen X-ers, now middle age, that administration was polarizing and frightening, spawning a sense of helpless rage that made its way through youth culture, including the music of the time. Meanwhile, waves of gentrification were running though urban centers, displacing lower-income people for corporate headquarters and condos built by companies that got fat and drunk on Reagan’s pro-corporation policies. Grunge seemed to be almost in direct response to that sense of frozen, angry terror and indignation, a punch back at the humiliation of feeling used and then forgotten by the system.
Sound familiar? It’s hard to listen to Common Blah and not feel that same sense of disillusionment with everything, from politics and the economy to racial politics and women’s and LGBTQ issues. The aim is a little bit to the side, Weakened Friends are not hitting things on the nose, but with lyrics like “I hate everything we're doing, it's a waste for me” on the track “Hate Mail,” or “I couldn't make it feel the way that I swore it felt when we were younger and ourselves” from “Younger,” I feel catapulted right back to 1992, listening to Nevermind on repeat and leafing through a copy of Adbusters, dreaming about turning 18 so I could start being a fully functioning culture jammer. The feeling, the emotions here, they’re so relatable to anyone who pays attention to the news and isn’t a MAGA conservative.
The instrumentation follows this lead. Weakened Friends’ previous outings have been lighter, more insulated, teenaged works. Here, the drums are hit hard, the guitars are raw and loud, and the vocals are screams. It’s an overall more intense and vital musical experience. It’s not a political record in the least; all of the songs are about personal things, from love stories to breakup stories. But it is a record that must have been made in direct response to the cultural climate under which Sturino, Hoffman and Jones labor. And while the music itself has a spin of ‘90s English on it while preserving much of the band’s signature sound (Sturino’s unique vibrato can be found throughout, for instance), its responsiveness to the world might actually be the most grungy thing about this record.
Things are changing, but familiar things give us comfort. It’s not surprising to see younger bands dipping back into the well of old sounds from their childhood to characterize their new art. The take away, for me, is that the kids these days, well they’re fucking pissed off. Previous generations failed to take the proper actions to shift things, and we got old and the energy needed to push and fight gave way to minivans and school fundraisers. But I’ve got my fingers crossed that this acute moment in history will, instead of creating the “Prozac Generation,” instead create the “We Fought The Man And We Won Generation.” Common Blah kind of gives me hope. I’m here for it. I’ve got your back.
Common Blah | by Weakened Friends | https://weakenedfriends.bandcamp.com/album/common-blah