FIVE LESSONS LEARNED REVIEWS
LOUD, SCRUNCHY GUITARS. A slightly
swinging, way-sped-up country beat. Ah, the familiar sounds of cow punk. There's
nothing terribly original about the Swingin' Utters, who'll be
playing at the New Daisy Tuesday with NOFX and the Teen Idols.
Think Social Distortion and Lord knows how many bands before them, and
you've pretty much got the picture. Still, the Utters, as heard on ther latest
from Fat Wreck Chords, Five Lessons Learned, know their way around a
tasty, sing-songy hook. The title track is a particularly tuneful evocation of
utter futility (no more puns, promise), while "A Promise To Distinction",
about the fear of life unlived, takes an unusual Pogues-ish turn with a
touch of mandolin thrown in. As both those songs would seem to indicate,
lyrically the Utters traverse the familiar punk paths of frustration and
disaffection. And while it may be a well-worn path, there's something to be said
for strutting down it with style.
-some Albuquerque magazine (review by Mark Jordan)
The Swingin' Utters began in the early 90's playing '77-era punk in the bristling San Francisco punk scene. Like any punk band worth its weight, the Utters tore into the national tour circuit, joining acts like Rancid and Sick Of It All, and released a couple albums on indie New Red Archives. In '96, they moved up to one of the leading punk labels, Fat Wreck Chords, with the release of A Juvenile Product of the Working Class.
Last year the group released its latest, Five
Lessons Learned, which shows the band growing as songwriters and performers
while still retaining the spark and energy of their forefathers. Songs like the
propulsive title track and "The Stooge" are an explosive mix of
memorable melodies and surprisingly crafty guitar work, but it's the group's
Celtic influenced songs and the addition of unexpected instrumentation like
pianos and violins that is most startling. The Pogues-ish "A Promise
To Distinction" and "Fruitless Fortunes" add diversity to the
Utters' sound, but it also all works together to make for a refreshingly dynamic
punk album. Instead of falling one-dimensional cartoon-ish version of themselves,
which happens to too many punk bands, the group seems insistent on challenging
themselves on every level. -City Beat (Cincinnati), 4/99
(review by Mike Breen)
San Francisco's brashest boys, the Swingin' Utters, return with their fourth album, Five Lessons Learned. Though they still create the kind of fist-pumping punk that emulates England's late-'70s punk, Five Lessons Learned is a mature, well-rounded recording that finds the Utters broadening their musical scope, proving themselves to be one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated punk outfits around. Here they incorporate piano, organ and mandolin so seamlessly into their repertoire, you wonder why it took the band so long to experiment with new instrumentation. And as the music churns things up, at times exposing influences of ska and garage rock, Johnny Bonnel lashes out with vocals that recall Shane McGowan and Social Distortion's Mike Ness.
-CMJ New Music Report (review by Kelso Jacks)
Due to simple unfortunate timing, the under-21 set--and really, the under-31 set--just missed seeing the Clash and Stiff Little Fingers play live at the height of their powers, but they'll get a taste of what it might have been like at two all-ages Swingin' Utters shows this weekend. With Five Lessons Learned, their most recent release on Fat Wreck Chords, the Utters dig into punk's past, and their own, with the title track ("Beyond and back and I'm still the same/Kicked over some old trash but I still waste"). With seasoned singer Johnny Bonnel at the mike, the Utters crank out songs that range from brooding to pissed to bitterly funy, generating infectious, head-bobbing riffs as they go. Listen for hints of the Pogues (from the fiddle and accordion embellishment) and Social Distortion, with whom the band toured over its nearly decadelong career and multiple national and international outings.
-S.F. Guardian (11/98)
All the punk boys in Frisco come out to play tonight at the too-fancy-for-the-occasion Great American Music Hall. The Swingin' Utters, local boys celebrating their new release on Fat Wreck Chords, send up '70's-style Brit punk for big, beefy slabs of fun-loving angst. Their new album, Five Lessons Learned, reaches further out than the previous two, using pianos, violins, and other punk oddities to lend Irish or ska bents to a few songs. -S.F. Guardian
The Swingin' Utters rule. They don't do anything you haven't heard before, they just do it with more energy, tunes and punk rock joie de vivre than any band since, well, The Clash. At some point in the '80's a virus invaded Northern California that made every band that knew at least three chords (but no more than four) want to be The Clash. The Utters were obviously infected, but Five Lessons Learned shows more than just feverish symptoms. Where other bands perfected much of the form, this album possesses the spirit of the Last Gang in Town.
Five Lessons Learned is a guilty pleasure, from the '80's throwback thrash of the opening title track to the dubious Celtic folk of the closing "Fruitless Fortunes"--it says something that this band can sound like Bad Religion and the Levelers on the same album and yet not be complete shit. How do they do it? Who cares, as long as they keep kicking out barroom punk as infectious as "This Bastard's Life" and "I Need Feedback".
There's a fine line between inspired and derivative, and Five Lessons Learned manages to land on the right side every time. Take a look at the grizzled punk characters on the sleeve, give the record a spin, and tell me these guys don't love rock 'n' roll. Punk rock: it can still be a breath of fresh air. -Ink Blot magazine
What's great about Five Lessons Learned is that the party works on any day of the week, at any time of day and with any number of people. I'm not a huge fan of punk-rock, but the production on Five Lessons Learned is incredible. I guess after 10 years and three albums, the Swingin' Utters have finally refined their product.
Five Lessons Learned is a pretty
rockin' album by any standards. From the opening of the title track and
throughout the entire album, it's evident that these seasoned Bay Area veterans
will continue with their "brand of classic, '70s-Brit-styled punk
rock" well into the 21st century. To describe the songs on Five Lessons
Learned at any length would be to blaspheme the good name and simplicity of
punk rock itself.
-Slamm (San Diego), 6/98 (review by Justin Valdivia)
On its latest CD, Five Lesson Learned, Swingin' Utters demonstrate that at least one lesson's been learned: Punk rock gets eons more interesting with an injection of harmony and melody--things that are sadly missing from most current punk rawk. These days, if you do hear a catchy riff or two, it's usually so watered down and slowed down that it's no longer safe to call it punk (Green Day, anyone?). Swingin' Utters are too hard, too fast, and too punk for radio, which seems to prefer Green Day and its ilk. Too bad too, 'cause the Utters have got more punk in their collective little fingers than all of Green Day combined. And that's a lesson learned. -some Seattle mag (7/98)
(review by T.R.)
Having crossed the country more times than an interstate big rig, having seen the whole of Europe at least three times in as many years, having toured with everyone remotely relevant to punk rock--Social Distortion, Supersuckers, Descendants, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, to name a few--the Swingin' Utters stopped off at home just long enough to lay down another album for Fat Wreck Chords. As the name might suggest, Five Lessons Learned finds the Utters in a brutally self-reflective mood, one that befits the album's gritty but mature sound. As usual guitarist Darius Koski stands out as a uniquely insightful songwriter who uses Johnny Bonnel's gruff vocals to galvanize lyrics like "You're morally disconnected/You seem to be a mistress, or some forgotten wallflower". Bonnel himself pens a couple of power punches about booze and self-pity that hearken back to The Streets of San Francisco. For the first time, guitarist Max Huber shares equal time with Koski, writing a slew of revelations about friends, failure, and fame. Lyrically more representative of the group as a whole, Five Lessons is a kaleidoscope of scenes viewed through the bottom of a pint glass: gregarious, fierce, giddy, somber, angry, and melancholy. Musically too, the Utters have stretched out, tinting their '70's punk sound with fiddle, accordion, upright bass, Hammond organ, and brass.
-S.F. Weekly 6/98 (review by Silke Tudor)
Seems like Swingin' Utters are at the top of their game. Nary a bad word has been said about them, and their shows sell out consistently. With a little help from their friends (members of NOFX, Social D., New Morty Show), their latest CD, Five Lessons Learned, is a real treat, a span of ace songs capable of currying favor with people of varying tastes. the Utters' bread and butter lies somewhere between the sounds of the buzzcocks and Sham 69, but the band garnishes that backbone with singer Johnny Bonnel's vocal wear, which recalls Social Distortion ("The Stooge") and, in the occasional folk flourish ("A Promise To Distinction"), the Pogues. For tight play and naked aggression with some real heart, it's hard to beat the Swingin' Utters.
-S.F. Weekly (11/98)
(review by Howard Myint)
Perhaps the most distinctive group from the Fat Wreck Records family, the Swingin' Utters provide punk rock in an unusually calm, cool and collected manner. There's neither over-the-top vocal whining and verbal tantrums nor hard-core mega-distortion with barreling drums to stereotype these Californians. The Utters do, however, hearken back to the days of the 70's English music scene, a-la Stiff Little Fingers and early Clash. While standard punk fare three chord progressions still wander the proverbial sonic range, there's something refreshingly different about the Utters that just can't be pinpointed. Maybe it's the honesty of "I Need Feedback", which succinctly states the secret feelings of many of us: "Well I'm just fuckin' lazy/my whole life's making me crazy/but I wouldn't give any of it up/even if you paid me" that represents the true essence of the Utters. Other conceptualizations of reality include "This Bastard's Life" with its smooth melodies, and the title track, which demands listener attentiveness via the bluesy piano riffs and fuzzy guitar riffs. Fat Wreck births a winner with Five Lessons Learned--everything about the album snarls suaveness with savvy accompaniment. You'll tap your feet, you'll want to clap your hands, and you'll find yourself hitting the play button repeatedly.
--Splendid Zine (review by Andrew Magilow)
Tadpoles turn into frogs, caterpillars metamorphosize into butterflies and oi boys grow up to be rockers. This not-so-curious transformation is not so much a mellowing or maturation as a return to roots rock. So don't call it a departure, Five Lessons Learned is the album the Utters have always wanted to make. With a host of guest musicians playing bass and rhythm guitar (so many people played bass, the Utters could only guess at who played what and when), tons of time in the studio and the freedom from Fat Wreck Chords to make an album the way they wanted to make it, Five Lessons Learned is the most accomplished Utters release yet. Stylistically diverse, Five Lessons Learned fuses traditional instrumentation (hence the mandolin, piano and accordion) with hard-driving rock and roll. It's part Social Distortion (circa "Mommy's Little Monster"), part Pogues (circa Shane McGowan), and it's all good. Neither punk nor pop, yet catchy and melodic, Swingin' Utters is indie rock's best kept secret. --Flipside (review by Money)
It starts out where A Juvenile Product of the Working Class left off--on par with the best of American oi, street punk, the high ground held by The Dropkick Murphys, Rancid, the Bristles, The Ducky Boys, and the Working Stiffs with the title song. The second ditty, "Tell Me Lies" borrows riffs from the previous album, and seems like it could be outtakes from previous sessions, but starting out with "A Promise To Distinction", as if by the title of the song, something very different takes afoot. Squeeze box, tin whistle (?), mandolin (?) and it sounds like The Toothless One, Shane McGowan of the Pogues had bum rushed the band and the struggle on stage is the composition of the song: lush, languorous, tricky, but undressed in its instant beauty ("Did that fuck just say "beauty" in a Swingin' Utters review?). Don't take it as a bad sign, take it that the Guinness sign is shining bright, and I for one loved early and mid Pogues (the Pogues just weren't the same without McGowan). The Utters sound overall is cleaner, sharper, with tones that I hadn't associated with them before, elements I believe make their musical ground more unique (they use piano and an organ for crying out loud), their approach less pat into the oi mold, less prone to distinction if the genre itself gets stabbed in its heart like many a barrom hero: the hummy fuzzy underlying of the lead vocalist, ala the Psychedelic Furs, the broken-future, broken-heart era Replacements, the temperament of the smartest and nicest bartender in America, along with some good, old-fashioned Chuck Berry meets Mick Jones punk rock make this a keeper. Makes me want to clap my hands in synch, tip a pint, and wink as they play the favorites. --Flipside (review by Todd)