In 1987, the Descendents parted ways with vocalist Milo Aukerman, bringing ex-Dag Nasty singer Dave Smalley in to take over, and — using the title of the group’s final album for a name — transmuted into All, drummer (and ex-Black Flagger) Bill Stevenson’s long-brewing caffeine concept quartet with bassist Karl Alvarez and guitarist Stephen Egerton. The Lomita, California band began by putting a melodic spin and a goofy, good-natured lyrical twist on punky, clear guitar rock, but through enormous productivity and a procession of lead singers (the weakest link in All’s chain) has developed into a more substantial and serious proposition.
At the first LP’s silliest point, All do a Dickiesish ode to a fast-food joint (“Alfredo’s”) in the hopes of getting free food. But it’s not All jokes: “Just Perfect,” “#10 (Wet)” and “Hooidge” have killer hooks and a beach-blanket sound energized by unexpected hardcore- derived moves. At once summarizing and surpassing the Descendents, All offers a spunky, electric post-punk alternative for those who miss Generation X and despise Billy Idol.
Allroy for Prez dispenses with the humor for a half-dozen rocking love songs written individually by all the Alls. The playing and production are great, but the material doesn’t consistently connect with equal potency. From Smalley’s bitter “Wrong Again” through cover artist Alvarez’s cynical “I Hate to Love,” the record gains melodic momentum, peaking on “Postage,” an overdriven Shoes-like power pop hummer penned by Stevenson. The CD and cassette add a new version of “Just Perfect” and “Wishing Well,” both from a prior 12-inch single.
Scott Reynolds replaced Smalley in time for Allroy’s Revenge, a speedy, punkier-sounding album of broadening artistic ambition that lacks the production clarity, melodic strength and carefree demeanor of All’s best work. Existential anxieties and problems with women (even “Copping Z,” an intriguingly syncopated number about sleeping late, asks “What can I expect from the years ahead?”) set a serious tone that is hardly leavened by the hard-edged music. (The delightful “She’s My Ex,” a single which puts romantic regrets to a tuneful bop, is the exception that best demonstrates the problem.) A snappy rendition of “Hot Rod Lincoln” (one of two CD/tape bonus tracks) proves that All hasn’t lost its taste for fun, but this powerful, occasionally enlightening record should have been made by another band.
In a nice bit of continuity, the live Trailblazer, recorded at New York’s CBGB on a Tuesday night in July 1989, opens with the same song that closes the Revenge CD. Named after a portable toilet that (according to the stomach-turning liner notes) vastly improved All’s quality of life on the road, Trailblazer draws more than half of its fourteen songs from Revenge. An adequate but unessential document, the sound is mushy and flat, and the performances are nothing special.
The pursuit of the mythic All then brought the group to Allroy Saves, a complex and sophisticated album that trades in difficult rhythms and intricate guitar figures, pop melodies and thoughtful lyrics. With Reynolds taking the lead writing role, conversational narratives about losers, fools, cops and frogs make Saves fascinating and provocative; the rough music alternates All-some catchiness (as on old pal Milo Aukerman’s Gen X-y “Just Like Them”) with a challenging attack that approaches an unpretentious punk Police. (The high end of Reynolds’ voice does have a Sting-like quality to it.)
Temporarily reuniting with erstwhile Descendents bassist Tony Lombardo, All became Tonyall to cut an album of his songs. Lombardo, Reynolds and Alvarez take turns singing lead on New Girl, Old Story, a flimsy power pop outing in which goony sentimental lyrics are the only serious fly in its inoffensive ointment. “I’ve got your picture in my guitar case/I guess that I am just a hopeless case…”
The excellent Percolater reheats All’s inventive pop punk variation without missing a conceptual beat. Having relocated to Brookfield, Missouri, the foursome continues to break barriers and bridge styles with growing skill, humor and strength in varied directions. When the tightly arranged music isn’t incorporating sophisticated Police-y rhythmic shifts or showboating fusion guitar figures (in the instrumental “Birds”), All could pass for Squeeze’s punk-schooled cousins (see the prosaic family report of “Wonder,” the craggy cow manure of “Missouri 63”), the Ramones’ big brothers (“Minute” calmly speeds through its three-chord melody) or Midwest rockers (“Empty” mixes elements of Cheap Trick, Soul Asylum and the Magnolias). Ultimately, this natural progression of wit and wood is all All, All good.
Following another change in HQ (this time pitching tent in Fort Collins, Colorado) and lead singers (trading Reynolds for Chad Price), All loosened up, dropped its grown-up demeanor and made an entertaining, uncomplicated punk-rock record. Loud, hard, fast and totally lacking in the subtlety, details and dynamics that made Percolater so special, Breaking Things tears along densely at full tilt, navigating firm melodies, super hooks and troubled lyrics with the easy confidence of Bad Religion. Although the material is uneven (“Politics” is unmitigated thrash, the likes of which All hasn’t played in years), the popcool quality of the best songs is uncompromised, just served up without sonic trimmings. Stevenson’s “Shreen” is a disconsolate romantic dynamo with a superb anthem chorus worthy of the Replacements; his miserable “Guilty” and “Birthday I.O.U.” are nearly as good. Alvarez’s terse “Right” gets through a complete and memorable crash course in under two minutes and leaves the tune lingering in the air. Price’s voice suits hardcore better than Reynolds’ ever did, and the band seems to have settled toward that sound without any embarrassment at the implications of such an uncomplicated approach.
All of which cleared the decks and prepared All for its major-label debut, Pummel. With valuable writing contributions by Price and no specific stylistic axes to swing or bury (except the one obviously being sharpened for an unnamed but evidently real rock journalist in the venomous “Uncle Critic”), the quartet rares back and fires off a rock mulligan that has big, meaty chunks of everything in All’s arsenal. Unrecognizable as the All of old, the group lashes Egerton’s intricate guitar power and Price’s throaty voice to typically well-crafted songs that become harsh punk (“Stalker,” “This World”) and racing popcore (“Button It”) as convincingly as charged rock (“Self-Righteous,” “Black Sky”) or lovable loud pop (“Miranda,” “Long Distance,” “Breakin’ Up”). The lyrics rake over the coals of failed relationships and antagonistic acquaintances (and, in Egerton’s “On Foot,” mechanical transportation), generally sticking to the band’s thoughtful standards until abandoning them completely for the stupidity of Stevenson’s “Hetero” (“I never get any chicks / But it’s better than a gun / Or a dick in the mouth”). Other than that lapse into whining, Pummel is a winning combination of mighty tunes, power and intelligence.