“Your friend is quite the mercenary, I wonder if he really cares about anything. Or anybody.”
– Princess Leia
From the title to the last track, this new album by Dingus has a familiar sense of punk rock apathy, but Who Cares? is hardly the garden variety outing its cover implies — in fact, the album is a fine example of what a new and more dynamic pop punk could be.
“I think, therefore I’m stupid,” sings bassist Jonathan Walters near the end of this hugely entertaining collection of songs by the trio he’s fronted since junior high school. “Epistemology” isn’t the best track on Who Cares? but it does encapsulate much of the over-wrought anxieties in the album with a strangely comforting mixture of mopey self-depreciation and unappreciated intellect.
And while Walters’ alternately hilarious and heavy lyrics are a highlight, what makes Who Cares? such a gem is the album’s stellar performances of superb arrangements. The first track really sets it up well, with a lot of energy and shades of 90s punk like NOFX or late-era Mr T Experience.
Our favorite song on the album — one of our favorite local songs of the year so far — is “Positive QI,” a tune which could have come from Avenue Q. This theatrical number takes on the album’s themes with wit and an unrestrained desire to entertain, and it really succeeds in every way.
In fact, what keeps up putting Who Cares? on the platter is how successfully its eleven tracks are separate from standard pop format and take on a Broadway-ish quality, both in Walters narratives and the band’s interplay. We’ve been writing for years that Sesame Street (specifically its musical directors Joe Raposo and Jeffrey Moss) are our generations Beatles and here’s some concrete proof. “Positive QI” and several other songs on Who Cares? are a product of the theatrical revival inspired by their music. Maybe Walters and crew found the Broadway approach through The Simpsons or South Park, but its still something you can trace back to Sesame Street. Our impression could be a stretch, but we hear a lot of the human pathos of theater music in this album — of course, two of our most favorite ever punk rock bands are Hickey and Schlong (whose adaptation of West Side Story was one of the most brilliant records of the 90s!). Punk rock just works well with musicals in a way other pop music doesn’t.
Every groove of Who Cares? is still filled with catchy hooks, fist pumping moments (as in a track which tells the story of a Soviet soldier at the Battle of Kursk) and head-banging riffs. Dingus manage to transition from the turning point on the Eastern front to a story about a zombie family living “happily ever after,” complete with an Iron Maiden riff and an Elvira’s Movie Macabre flair, without anything seeming out of a place.
Walters, who plays bass, is joined by guitarist Sam Beer and drummer Parker Thompson. They’ve been playing together for so long that Walters’ songs seem to be written specifically to bring out their best, as in the way Duke Ellington said he didn’t write for a instrument but for a instrument as performed by a specific member of his orchestra. While we were introduced to Beer as a member of the blue collar Springsteen ♥ing Blue Diamond Band, he’s more inclined to indulge punk rock and metal tendencies in this setting. His best playing on the album is in the unforced melding of these two impulses, as on the album’s opener “IROB” and in “The Zombies.” Thompson isn’t for a moment behind the other two, in fact he has to hold together some of the more unusual transitions like the introduction to “The Zombies” or the hilarious middle eight in the frantic minute and a half of “Arbitrary Fantasy.” Walters delivers the best lines (like “the empty bottles fuck up this house’s feng shui”) much like the Mr. T Experience’s Dr. Frank — we’d rank him with Rob Taxpayer as the most entertaining frontman to perform here at Hymie’s.
Someone (who’d like to be anonymous) loves the band and told us, “It’s sad because they’re one of the best pop punk bands in the cities, and when I go to their shows there’s hardly anyone there.” It almost seems fitting for Walters’ lyrics, and for a band that’s written on their Bandcamp page: “We no longer believe ‘success’ means making tons of money. Rather, we now hold the notion that success means: not making money. Thus, we’re successful as fuck.” Our hope is that Who Cares? will be for Dingus what the Battle of Kursk was for the Soviets, the turning of the tide that maybe, just maybe, will change the entire world. Maybe that’s a lot of hope. We think too much.