World/Inferno Friendship Society
“The Anarchy and the Ecstasy” (2011)
There’s an old and seldom used adage which goes, “It’s hard out there for a dapper anarcho-punk carnival barker costumed weirdo.” We’ve all noticed this at some point in our lives but I’m betting no one knows it better than Jack Terricloth, front man and songwriter of the World/Inferno Friendship Society, a loose punk cabaret orchestra carnival sideshow collective which has been steadily making music for a small but gradually expanding audience since 1996. Things have looked better for old Jack, even though the band is making some headway opening shows for the likes of the Bouncing Souls. Since their last album --2007’s Peter-Lorre-centered masterpiece “Addicted to Bad Ideas”—they’ve lost three key members, including guitarist Lucky Strano (whose distinct high-tone guitar warble is badly missed) and drummer Brian Viglione (probably WIFS’s biggest name, due to his other job as the drummer for the Dresden Dolls). The difficulty in sustaining a group of 10 or more musicians (let alone making any money at all!) seems to have taken its toll on the band and on Jack himself, and making a new album with a fraction of the members of the previous album didn’t inspire a ton of confidence (neither does the cheap-looking cover art and album design).
But what do you know, it turns out old Jack still has some fight left in him, or at least enough to make “The Anarchy and The Ecstasy” a worthwhile endeavor. Yes, the band’s mammoth sound is somewhat reduced here, and the production sounds a bit stifled and muddy compared to the wild dynamics of their last two. Rather than accepting this handicap, though, Jack and company have gone and changed up their game, creating a surprisingly warm and accessible album which may be their most consistent – though not their best – yet.
The album begins pleasantly enough with the mid-tempo cabaret stomp “I Am Sick of People Who Are Sick of My Shit.” It’s hard not to speculate that this is a jab at his former cohorts who abandoned ship, but the song’s ingratiatingly clever wit prevents it from starting the album on a sour note. As usual, it’s a flawlessly constructed attack of horns, pianos, guitars, multiple vocals, and punk percussion, but it’s hard not to notice that it lacks both the manic energy and the overwhelming force of their best work. There’s no way to recapture the huge sound of their former, larger incarnation with a mere 6-9 players, and as result their attempts to recreate that operatic musical drama on tunes like “Canonize Philip K. Dick OK” and “They Talk of Nora’s Badness” sound regrettably anemic by comparison. Perhaps realizing this, “Anarchy” finds Jack in a more personable, confessional, and thoughtful mood than any previous album, and the songs suit the current line-up much better.
In fact, ditching some of the more outrageous musical adventurism reveals an appealing pop sensibility which up til now remained hidden beneath the theatrics. Were it not for some lightly jazzy touches towards the end, “Thirteen Years without Peter King” might well be a Billy Joel tune, with its hooky piano and melancholy pop chorus. “The Politics of Passing Out” would not be at all out of place on a 70’s Bruce Springsteen album, complete with spritely saxophones and a by-the-books rock structure. The acoustic “The Mighty Raritan” finds Jack unexpectedly waxing nostalgic about his (or someone’s) childhood to a disarmingly sweet tinkling piano. It’s a surprisingly earnest moment for a guy who usually hides behind cheeky quips and obscure references.
That’s all well and good, and the songwriting is as strong as ever. The problem is that earnestness doesn’t suit World/Inferno as well as anarchy does. Jack’s voice is an exaggerated theatrical wail, and it works much better shouting suitably dogmatic anarchist edicts (“You don't change the world by sitting in your office / Sitting in your office is changing you!” he sings on “Canonize Philip K. Dick OK” – though the Koch brothers probably differ with him on that sentiment) than it does with the more confessional lyrics to “Raritan” (where i was nurtured and perverted / by women free-thinking / and hoarse voices in love”). They’re good lyrics, but do you really want Jello Biafra telling you how he’s feeling? World/Inferno may just be too ridiculous to quite gel with heart-on-your-sleeve sentiment. Outrageousness and strident idealism play to their strengths; emotional excursions neuter them a bit and diminishes the things which make them most unique. And of course, it’s hard not to miss the manic frenzy of their best tunes, like “Brother of the Mayer of Bridgewater” off “Red Eyed-Soul” or the wild swing avalanche of “Ich erinnere mich an die Weimarer Republik” from “Addicted to Bad Ideas.” “Disarming Smile” has a pleasing gallop to it, but it’s only an average tune and everything else seems oddly chaste – nothing really drags, but for a group of outsider punk anarchists they don’t seem to cut loose with quite the vigor they once did. The closest they get to sounding like the best version of themselves comes near the end, with the heady drama of “The Apple Was Eve” which finally manages to regain the heft and the wild abandon of their previous work.
Still, the album is by no means a failure. It feels like an odd sidestep for them, but you gotta give some credit for bravely exploring some new terrain (though for the record I can’t imagine what the fuck Terricloth is talking about when he goes on about this album having strong bluegrass touches. The closest thing to bluegrass on here is the vaguely honky-tonk shuffle of “Lean Times for Heroes” and even then only the verse really plays it up). Whatever you may think of his hard-line idealism, it’s hard not to be a little inspired by Terricloth and Company's commitment to their lifestyle and their unique sound, and their consummate musicianship and songwriting skills are undisputable. It’s nice to know that however lean the times may be for our heroes, they haven’t lost the faith. But here’s hoping that something pisses em off a little before they write the next chapter in the saga.
Special Note: World/Inferno are playing the Rock and Roll Hotel on H street in Washington DC Sunday, June 26th and you’d have to be a damn fool to not go to this one. They’re one of the wildest live acts out there today. See ya there.