Album Report: “Baby Criminalia” by The Funny Section

The Funny Section has been lurking in the shadows. This up and coming St Louis post-punk outfit got started in the summer of last year, but their shows then were few and far between. I had the chance to catch them once and their sound had a refreshing personality that inspired me to follow their steps. They released a couple of EPs last year that quietly resonated with aficionados of the modern DIY post-punk sound. “The Funny Selection” was presented as one track that contains six drenched in contained energy, riffs with a lo-fi twang and the carefree attitude implied in their name. “Christ’s Heel” enlisted Andy Peterson on the technical side of things to achieve a cleaner, more straightforward blend in guitars and vocals to slick out the texture of this already cool-oriented band.

The trio is formed by Austin Zink, Oliver Kanak and Adam King. Adam also recorded the album, with additional recording and mixing done by Andy Peterson. If you’ve listened to “Christ’s Heel” it’s easy to tell Andy Peterson’s involvement, as both releases pitch very similar sonic personalities. The production is rough around the edges and knowingly imperfect while maintaining strong energy and an urgent nature that fits the style well. The band members’ tendency to switch between guitar, bass and drums on pretty much every song makes it hard to tell what each member specifically does in this release (besides being a part of the band), especially considering the lack of information in the liner notes. This constant back and forth can be disorienting, but the dynamic created by shifts in lead vocals and instrumental style adds a lot of momentum to their sound and keeps the textures fresh and exciting.

“Baby Criminalia” is the third release from The Funny Section in less than a year’s time. Despite the band’s unwillingness to waste time in putting out material, the ideas are still fresh and exciting, and even though they hardly reinvent the wheel of their own sound they manage to find new avenues within it that are stimulating to hear explored. This group tends to rely on the collected yet aggressive dynamic range of western clean punk bands such as The Uranium Club, the B Boys or Dumb, while maintaining idiosyncrasy through bizarre personalities put forth in the microphone by all three members. These vocal interventions range from cool and subdued to dark and mysterious or loud and frantic; they often feel tongue-in-cheek, leaving me with the disorienting feeling of not being able to tell if they’re joking. The riffs and grooves that bed them aren’t revolutionary by any means, but they are confident and infectious whether they’re in a cowboy twang or a gothic hypnosis.

Indeed, the instrumental side of this EP shines through and tends to hit all the right places for me. The opening track “Flat Terrain” is one of the strongest of the release, featuring an immediately active groove that accompanies a relaxed lead guitar, with faint scratches in the background that round out the texture along the bass and its circling harmonic statement. Later on the song acquires an unexpected synth line that works surprisingly well, even featuring an overt lead on the instrument. The Funny Section seems intent in extending a riff’s expected duration, allowing the interaction between the parts in their arrangement to develop in one’s mind and set the tone for each new texture visited. I am especially thankful for this on this opening track– everything feels well-orchestrated and each riff keeps my interest and alters my expectations despite the simplicity of composition. The repetitions circle around my mind long after the track is over, inevitably warranting a return to it. When the opening riff comes back at the end, I feel both at home and traveling on a nice, cool breeze.

The attitude on “Flat Terrain” returns on numbers such as “Masquerade”, a single note guitar and bass journey tinted by dissonant high notes that really sell that cowboy attitude. “Stand Up”‘s instrumental acts similarly, with a reliance on arpeggiated and jarring chords that color the blend above the chugging bass line, and uncomfortable, slightly out of time guitar scratches. These “cowboy” riffs act immediately on the body as they offer pleasant tension and release in pretty much every turn while maintaining an urgent identity and a stimulating dynamic range, but The Funny Section’s sound on “Baby Criminalia” treads further than the western clean punk. Songs like “Accept It” throw us back to the goth intentions of the 80’s with a sinister guitar riff rounded out by a pedalling alto synth and topped with a vocal performance that references acts like The Cure both in timbre and melody. “Cannot Speak” establishes itself with a primal guitar riff reminiscent of garage rock that pounds and pounds until the song double times into a dark and subdued post-punk statement. “Narcissistic” shifts back into cowboy, only this time the fast riffs are replaced by an angsty ballad that tail-ends the release in a confusing fashion for a change of pace.

All of these instrumental landscapes accompany vocal performances that change constantly, presenting a myriad of ideas and styles within a neat 15 minute package. The performance in “Flat Terrain” is of my favorites, featuring a calm yet decisive attitude that seems to weave in and out of the texture arbitrarily to keep us on our toes. The opening line “Flat people, flat terrain/I look around again, all the same” relies on a cliché but does so with confidence and poise, making it instantly infectious and energizing. In this way The Funny Section seems to want to live up to their name, with a number of vocal sections attempting to harness that cliché’d intention and over blow it enough to make it into something that warrants an immediate reaction. The over-exaggerated yelling in “Cannot Speak” turned me off upon first listen, but more runs through had me chuckling at the shrieks that tail end all the existential questions presented– even after the vocals switch to cool spoken word the band decides to end with a final scream that sounds straight from a cheap horror sound board. The Robert Smith influence on “Accept It” is undeniable, but rather than feed from his style the vocals feel like an overblown, cartoon version of the singer that sighs and weeps uncontrollably throughout the aggressive instrumental for a hilariously dramatic effect.

These vocal performances switch from cool to exaggerated to simplistic to existential so often that I am left disoriented throughout “Baby Criminalia”. The sonic intentions are consistent and they help all of the instrumentals stay together for the most part, but the tongue-in-cheek vocal exaggerations leave me constantly wondering whether I should be taking The Funny Section seriously or not. Indeed, the first couple of times that I listened to this release I was confused and wondered whether I actually liked it or not. After diving deeper into it I realized that these constant curve balls clad in light-hearted mockery of rock and roll and otherwise make The Funny Section special and unique in their perceived mission. I wouldn’t say it always works: some of the screaming performances can get a bit tiring after a while when compared to the slicker vocals that contrast them, the shifting voices make it hard for me to perceive development in personality from one given person, and track list positioning choices such as putting “Narcissistic” in the last spot can mess with the momentum and arc of the release, making the relaxed cruiser feel tacked on to the end instead of the breath of fresh air it should be. Despite these qualms, the band is successful in establishing their surreal identity, and using it to confuse and challenge their audience.

“Baby Criminalia” is yet another exciting short release from one of the most refreshing bands in the scene right now. The sound palettes put forth in the instrumentals are contagious and immediately acting, the personas pitched in the vocals are confusing and rewarding, and the band’s potential for growth is immense and exciting. Certain tracks do a lot more for me than others do, but the ever-shifting nature of the track list warrants preference from any listener and solidifies my relationship with my favorites. The Funny Section takes risks that go past the excursions in their last releases, and although I don’t necessarily agree with every style and identity presented here, I do think the amalgamation of it all helps paint a better picture of the group and what they came here to do. Some of the tracks on here have quickly become of my favorite rock tunes in the city, and the others show me how far the band is willing to go to keep the bit going. If the poem on their liner notes says anything at all, it’s that The Funny Section isn’t trying to take any of this too seriously, but their sound and material leaves me compelled to take it seriously myself. Considering that this is their third release in less than a year I’d wager they have plenty more to say, and this guy is all ears.

Listen to “Baby Criminalia” via Bandcamp down below:

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