We all probably know by now, due to Portland’s well-advertised slogan “stay weird,” that any punk band from the indie crochet and vegan stripclub Mecca isn’t going to just be straight up and down punk. In fact, in their debut album Frantic Hearts, experimento-punk group Summer Houses have more in common compositionally and sound-wise with The Doors and Zappa than anything a fan outside of PDX would classify as punk. But is it the band that’s wrong, or the definition?
With a mean-spirited electronic organ a main feature of their sound and the dollop of electronica we needed to justify this article on YEDM, Portland native Summer Houses have the built-in chaos, screaming lyrics and psychobilly guitar vibes and utter lack of attention to key that’s typified punk since its inception. Originally an experimental sound before it was co-opted by the more popular likes of The Sex Pistols and The Clash, punk’s definitive sound never really was definitive. In the 70s and early 80s, there was still a lot of overlap with classic rock and punk took a lot of influence from bands like Frank Zappa, Sabbath, Golden Earring and Iron Butterfly.
Punk split off into more stylized, almost unrecognizable genres like new wave and goth/emo and made its way into pop culture in the late 80s while other factions took it to weirder, more marginalized areas like psychobilly and whatever it was Fugazi and Bad Brains were doing. In the 90s, grunge emerged and almost over took the whole genre. Thanks to bands like Social Distortion, Black Flag and The Descendents, among other pop punk outfits who shall not be mentioned here, there was always a core of “punk punk” that has come to be the stereotypical sound most music fans associate with punk, but rest assured: nothing about punk was ever meant to be stereotypical.
With that somewhat bitter, GenX-tinged history lesson, at the corner of “not stereotypical” and punk culture is where we find Summer Houses. Known for their wild performances playing almost exclusively house parties and recording nothing of their work in the first years of their band-dom, one could be forgiven if one thought the band’s releases thus far is nothing more than improvisational jam sessions committed to record. Scratch beneath the surface a bit, however, and it’s clear that the works put together both for their previous EPs and for Frantic Hearts are well-designed, multi-layered and far more musically complex than your average two-chord punk song.
With super-cool album art by Sofia Champan that matches the title and vibe of the album, Frantic Hearts opens with a classic grunge riff, which is a fixture to this album. It’s clear that on top of all their 70s and 80s influences, Summer Houses has a strong connection with the punk of the 90s. Fans of grunge will catch whiffs of early Smashing Pumpkins and Alice in Chains. “Winners Circle,” in fact, seems to be a semi-ironic, sadder (if such a thing is possible) take on Local H’s “Bound to the Floor.” The base guitar is just a jumping off point, however. There’s also a good college radio vein running through the music a’la The Dead Milkmen, The Pixies or King Missile. Seeing as these bands also took their influence largely from Zappa, it stands to reason. This faction mostly shows up in the band’s propensity to move from lighter, sort of nerdy punk to heavy, Sabbath-inspired plummets in tone in tracks like “Television,” “Frantic Start” and “Wartime.”
The influences one can hear are endless in this album but the point is how it was all put together. With so many different styles and sounds an instruments put together at once and the meandering, existential vocals paired with the sort of disembodied keyboards make for a chaotic, almost surreal experience. There’s so much to listen to, so many transitions and so much attention to noise and dissonance that it’s not worth it to pick apart all the styles, especially if one is at one of Summer Houses’ raucous shows. That said, it’s important to note that this is definitely not your boiler plate punk, and in fact the tracks on Frantic Minds were likely carefully crafted for the effect they create. These punks have created something that may sound musically frantic but has the heart of something true, full and genuinely artistic. If you don’t think that’s punk, it might be time to update your definition.