At first, (Young) Pioneers lyrics sound like half-baked sloganeering, with superfluous nods to radical heroes like George Jackson and Carlos the Jackal. Their best songs, however, describe the relationship between struggling individuals and the machinery of oppressive politics — images of lovers in a riot or a Vietnam veteran writing to his wife about his fear of death. The Richmond, Virginia trio’s one major albatross is that guitarist/vocalist Adam Nathanson has a horrible voice and can really only get away with shouting hoarsely beneath a thick layer of distortion. But as the Pioneers developed their Minutemen-meets-Hüsker Dü punk sound and potent lyrical themes in the latter part of a six-year career, they sometimes made a moving, charming racket.
The self-titled EP is a muddy-sounding, all-acoustic affair, with former Born Against members Nathanson and drummer Brooks Headley (also ex-Universal Order of Armageddon and Skull Kontrol) backed by Neil Burke’s wheezy, tuneless harmonica. Nathanson can’t manage much more than an out-of-tune croak, but “Pravda” rises above the ramshackle folk to show some embryonic promise.
(Young) Pioneers added parentheses to their name and bassist Marty Violence to their lineup as they went electric on First Virginia Volunteers. It’s not exactly Dylan at Newport in ’65, but the album does show marked improvement, including some bearable harmonica playing by Nathanson, who took over mouth harp duties from Burke (off to later join Men’s Recovery Project). Much-improved electrified versions of three songs from Young Pioneers (“Food Stamps” and “White Like Me” are particularly good) join such excellent new originals as “Evidence Indicating Other Than Suicide,” “The Whereabouts of Johnny Gosh” and the oddly upbeat “I’m So Afraid of Getting Cancer.” The Pioneers are at their best when framing political discontent with catchy punk and emo, but they do dip into some ill-advised waters here. They’re poorly suited to the clumsy heavy metal vibe on “Murder Has No Tongue,” and “Red Tick Coonhound” should have been left to rot on the debut EP. Overall, however, First Virginia Volunteers shows a lot of creative development — which makes the awfulness of the next record a surprise.
The Pioneers sound like an amateur Black Sabbath cover band on We March, which is far too sludgy and slow to let any of the group’s talent rise to the surface. A huge step backward for a band that seemed poised to make a noisy, exciting record.
That record is the Crimewave EP — even with vocals that are utterly unintelligible, like a man with a cleft palate screaming into an overmodulated megaphone. (Thank heaven for lyric sheets.) The much-improved songs reflect the band’s struggles as much as the protagonists in the more thoughtful tunes. The hard-driving “Love Song From the International Section” is an anguished letter from a Vietnam soldier to his young family (“If we lose, kiss the baby goodbye”). “Carlos the Jackal” deals with a secret prison love (“Oh mister please don’t tell the warden / It’s the sweetest cell I’ve ever been in”) and merely namechecks the titular terrorist. (The Pioneers’ lyric conceits can be immature or ignorant — casually mentioning a murderer/kidnapper for cool points is utterly misguided.) “Pioneers Liberation Radio” isn’t much more than a political rant, rushing by in a muddy, melodic blur with a rousing sing-along chant: “One man! / One vote!” The expanded Crimewave, on CD, adds three songs from an excellent Whirled/Irony Records single — presaging the advances of the next EP — and three live tunes, including a reprise of “Siege Museum” and the first of three stabs at “We Ain’t Even Married.”
On Trial features less dunderheaded political posturing and a more cohesive, down-to-earth vision, adding doses of Chuck Berry and MC5 to the sharpening sound. Nathanson’s vocals rise to a strangled scream on the bilious, thundering “Regrets of the Doubters,” but the five-song 7-inch is otherwise far more tuneful. “(At the Time of the) Ceasefire” is a vivid imagining of a couple caught in a riot, surrounded by incongruous noise (“Shell-shocked coming home and there’s a treble in the tone — AM hit radio!”). The dirty ’50s rock ‘n’ roll riffing of “Fuck the Labor Pool” and a noisy folk ballad that finally works (“The Pioneer Worker Pact”) are welcome changes of pace. The CD has five additional tracks, including the second and finest version of “We Ain’t Even Married” and two more hard-charging, desperate songs about lovers who don’t have a chance — “Ghosts of the Lumpen” and “Lovers on Trial.”
Five mostly forgettable songs fill the Pioneers’ side of their split EP with Avail, recalling the group’s half-formed early work. Although the trio seems out of steam here, they regained their mojo more than a year later to make their finest record.
Free the (Young) Pioneers Now! features more rabblerousing clamor, coherently recorded. The tight rhythm and sharp guitar twang makes the first song, the instrumental “Ballad of the (Young) Pioneers,” sound like a punked-out Steve Earle. The rest of the album is almost jangly power pop. The stirring tales of personal woe caused by oppressive political policy (“Downtown Tragedy,” “I.D.S.T.” and “Seven Days in May”) join a pair of choice covers — the Impressions’ “Meeting Over Yonder” and a faithful rendering of Impatient Youth’s satirical take on the Frank Loesser-penned World War II song “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. On the minus side, the album includes a completely pointless third version of “We Ain’t Even Married,” while “Talkin’ Johnny Law Blues” and its lame saxophone should have ended up on a B-side or compilation. Just as the group seemed to find the perfect balance of punk rock and political rants with love story subtexts, they disbanded in 1999. Imagine what they might have accomplished if Nathanson could carry a tune …