Douglas Martin doesn’t do saccharin.
Most of the reviews for The Bitters’ debut record East General have directly correlated the music with its cover art (metal band Orcustus has used the same artwork), often describing the music itself as unpleasant and needlessly gory. I suppose this is a proper way to contextualize a band and their intentions, but East General is not exactly black-metal. Hell, it doesn’t even slide into the territory of slasher-flick punk like, say, The Misfits. If anything, the band– headed by the pair of Ben Cook (he of Fucked Up and Young Governor) and firebrand Aerin Fogel– create dark-leaning proto-punk in the vein of no-wave pioneers Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and oft-overlooked Seattle band Schoolyard Heroes, only with more refined pop instincts.
It’s been suggested that East General focuses more on grime and dirt more than it does pop music, but it’s also been suggested that electing Ronald Reagan for a second term was a good idea. Sure, the record makes even the Downtown New York squalor of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell sound like Side 2 of The Zombies’ self-titled record, but Fogel sings far more than she howls on this album, and when she howls, it’s never at the expense of the song she’s wailing along with. As a vocalist, Fogel matches any of modern rock’s top-shelf front woman note-for-note; Karen O for charisma and melodic ingeniuty, Alison Mosshart for fuck-all abandon. She can snarl her way through “Wild Beast”, drone throughout “Beggar”, and still have time to sing almost-pop tunes like “Nails in the Coffin” and “Travelin’ Girl.”
However, like Nick Zinner to the Karen O, East General wouldn’t be nearly as special without Cook playing the role of Fogel’s creative foil. Musically, the songs through the record thrash, punch, and switch tempos frequently, sometimes without warning. On the album’s one-two combo of “East” and “Impatient as Can Be”, Cook makes the best of this 7:10 stretch, with the former’s irresistible bassline carrying the “walking through the bad part of town” vibe of the song through staccato guitar stabs and saxophone squeals, and tempering the pure-pop and handclaps of the latter’s soaring hook with grungy rhythm guitar and woozy lead guitar lines. There is no “Maps” on this record, but that’s not the type of song The Bitters seem to be chasing after; they seem to have enough fun recording breathlessly catchy music while fucking shit up in equal measure. Maybe those little clichéd rules we learn in elementary school are all right. Maybe we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.