As a skatepunk answer to Bad Religion, Pennywise’s eponymous debut weds driving, warp-speed punk-rock to intelligent, positive-thinking lyrics. The clean production, tight vocal harmonies and crisp ensemble playing provide a fine showcase for the Hermosa Beach, California band’s high-energy odes to self-reliance and camaraderie. Jim Lindberg’s husky, rapid-fire vocals have the commanding presence of Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin, although the dude-friendly lyrics eschew the latter’s daunting vocabulary and cocked-eyebrow cynicism for more robust, adolescent zeal. In fact, with the exception of “Homeless” — which urges the government to aid disenfranchised Americans before squandering dollars overseas — the lyrics read like a handbook on how to survive high school. “Rules,” “Living for Today” and “The Secret” offer advice on repelling peer pressure and defying conformity (“the only rules you should play by?…rules made up by you”), while “Come Out Fighting” and the anthemic “Side One” address the standard theme of scene unity (“come together, fight together, unite together as one!”).
With little support from radio or video, Pennywise found an appreciable audience in the aggro punk-rock demi-monde of surfers, skaters and snowboarders — enough to encourage a repackaging of two 1989 EPs (Wildcard was released three years after being recorded) on compact disc. This look at the infant Pennywise isn’t pretty; the songs are juvenile, generic hardcore bordering on frat-rock. Lindberg’s vocals all but mimic Kevin Seconds of 7 Seconds on the punk-rock tunes, the lyrics of which are painfully clichéd. Two of the eight tracks are stabs at Chili Pepper-styled funk in which Lindberg awkwardly raps the lyrics. The album closes with a silly, sped-up cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.”
Pennywise’s influences still loom large on Unknown Road — the title tune and the stirring “Homesick” both bear Bad Religion’s thumbprint, and Lindberg’s vocals frequently recall those of Graffin and Seconds — but there are signs the band is developing its own identity. Randy Bradbury subs for missing-in-action bassist Jason Thirsk (who shot himself to death at the end of July 1996) on all but two tracks; he and drummer Bryon McMackin provide a throbbing bottom to the machine-gun tempos. Experimenting with feedback and other effects, guitarist Fletcher Dragge finds a much wider repertoire of riffs to flesh out the arrangements. The lyrics, while still primarily earnest pep talks for sullen adolescents, are likewise fuller and more richly drawn, filled with metaphor and poetry. “City Is Burning,” about the Los Angeles riots, is a case in point, its anger directed not at the rioters but at the complacent suburban know-nothings who “sit back and watch TV while the problems grow outside.”
In the wake of the Offspring’s commercial success, the beefier, ballsier and more radio-friendly tone of About Time sounds great. With Epitaph chief Brett Gurewitz co-producing, Pennywise escapes the tinny, thin-sounding dynamics of its first two albums and adds a driving, metallish bottom to the guitar and bass. It’s probably no coincidence that Lindberg’s vocals (on cuts like “Searching” and “Perfect People”) have a booming pop-metal swagger reminiscent of the Offspring’s Dexter Holland. While still preaching positive thinking to impressionable teens, the lyrics are no longer as simplistic as slogans spray-painted on a schoolyard wall. The band even finds a few new ideas to explore, as on “Freebase” (a cautionary drug tale, told from the point-of-view of a crack dealer) and the delightfully self-deprecating “Perfect People,” in which the band actually betrays a sense of humor.