By Bill Adams
It took a couple of formative years and releases to really get settled and established, but Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine has found its rhythm and released a new, instantly classic album in White People and the Damage Done. Those readers who have heard about this album but haven’t actually heard any of the music yet may be skeptical, but one listen will prove that this is Biafra’s best release in a quarter-century. There will be no question of its quality after one listen, it’s just that simple; long-time listeners will recognize this record as a return to the perfect mix of confrontation, satire, kitsch political and social commentary, surf rock and punk which established Biafra’s name along with the Dead Kennedys and won the band a rabid following in the Eighties. In saying that though, it’s important to immediately point out that nothing about this record sounds stale, dated or trite; in fact there’s no denying that this record’s play is spry, vibrant and drips with fresh vitriol.
Listeners will be struck by the clearly renewed sound and power of both Biafra and GitSOM from the moment they drop the needle into “The Brown Lipstick Parade,” which opens the record. There, after guitarists Ralph Spight and Kimo Ball, bassist Andrew Weiss and drummer Paul Della Pelle shake listeners awake with a couple of electrical charges to warm up, Biafra emerges already whipped to a froth and ready to explode with the words, “We are the Illumi-Nazis/ You’re the food chain we devour/ Laughing all the way to China/ Giving you the golden shower.”
It’s perfect. Right off the top, Biafra has spit acid in the faces of a few institutions and it has been made perfectly accessible to even the punks who are most ignorant to current events by the hard/fast/a-hook-a-minute assault laid down by Spight, Ball, Weiss and Della Pelle. For the first time in what seems like forever, Jello Biafra is set up to comment on the world as he simultaneously rocks the pants off it, and it sounds GOOD. Like, landmark acheivement good.
With that tone set, Biafra and the band ride the waves they’ve made with “The Brown Lipstick Parade,” and will make jaws drop with the consistent potency and intensity of this sound that will remind some listeners of the Dead Kennedys, but is better because it’s thicker and harder. “John Dillinger” follows “The Brown Lipstick Parade” and handily presents the theory that crime figures and others who capture popular imagination (movie stars, rock stars et cetera) are really little more than excellent diversions offered to the media (and the public, by extension) to distract from whatever dirty tricks the government is perpetrating (like those on Wall Street – “John Dillinger” marks the first occasion on this record where the financial sector is targeted directly) in boardrooms and behind closed doors. The attack on Wall Street continues with the arch satire of “Werewolves Of Wall Street” and incites/aggravates Biafra still further; to the point that, by the time “Road Rage” launches, Jello is nearly jibbering ecstatically and expelling poison (see lines like “I hate my wife/ I hate my kids/ I hate my job/ I hate this town/ I hate my cable bills”) like a licentious lawn sprinkler. After that assault, listeners will still be reeling as “Mid-East Peace Process” keeps the speed of “Road Rage” up and adds paranoia to the mix for good measure before “Hollywood Goof Disease” makes sure that celebrities get dragged into the line of fire too – because no one should be exempt – to end the side.
By the time it ends, the first side of White People and the Damage Done will have the heads of listeners spinning and buzzing at the same time. The way it plays, the first side of the album is awesome and satisfying all on its own and some would say that pushing further would simply be overkill so, to appease them, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine seek to offer a bit of contrast by changing the focus a bit on the album’s second side. Featuring four songs to Side A’s six, , the B-side of White People and the Damage Done centers in on a vibe that is more distinctly “rock” than “punk,” and more muscular than lean and speedy.
While the focus may have changed, the bite of White People and the Damage Done‘s B-side is exactly no weaker. To open it up, White People and the Damage Done‘s title track dilates the scope of Jello Biafra’s attention to include the residents of all First World nations and their desire to purchase goods at the lowest possible price (which usually means they’re manufactured in Third World countries – as lines like “We’d all be more secure/ If the rest of the world/ Ain’t treated like slaves/ So we can buy cheap things”) as well as the arms manufacturers who sold weapons to the Middle East which ultimately spurred 9/11. In this case, Biafra has them all feeding at the same trough which is provocative enough, but it becomes even more so as the singer fills in the gaps between the slogans with even more incendiary prose and keeps the speed regulated to make sure listeners are able to absorb every single word. The way it’s done – how the indictments are presented as perfectly easy to understand and (thanks to the crystal clear production supplied by Marshall Lawless and Matt Kelley) follow, and how incisive the language is – it feels like Biafra is poking listeners in the collective chest, taunting and cajoling to absorb all the words and ideas, and ACT ON THAT SENSATION. The same fuel powers “Crapture” and the deliberately coy (and very, very Dead Kennedys-esque) “Burgers Of Wrath,” and the same muscular drive slams them both into the final word which is “Shock-U-Py!”i – which encourages people to take the power back as well as pointing out the importance of that sentiment before calling it a day. It might not have as many songs on it as the first side of the album does, but the second side of White People and the Damage Done says as much – if not more – and does offer an excellent sense of closure for everything which was addressed on the album.
After “Shock-U-Py!” closes White People and the Damage Done, listeners will be surprised to discover how energized they’ve been made to feel by the experience of it. The way that the speed of Side One crashes into the crunch of Side Two and the resolve that listeners get at the end of “Shock-U-Py” will leave listeners excited more than it might leave them exhausted (as many of Biafra’s pre-GitSOM releases were prone to doing). That kind of energy coupled with the aggression listeners can find in every song on White People and the Damage Done is addictive. Now that it’s out there with this release, the precedent will have been set and Jello Biafra will have no choice to at least match the power of this album on whatever he and his band put out next; if not surpass it. Here’s hoping he can pull it off.