Issue #112: Songs From Under The Sink by Mischief Brew

May 7, 2018

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Songs From Under The Sink by Mischief Brew
Released On June 6, 2006
Released By Fistolo Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Catherine Dempsey

I always start out as a casual fan of something before inevitably worming my way into the lives of the people I admire. I’m really, really good at it. Call it manipulative, call it sneaky. I always thought of it as a passionate desire to learn more about the musicians I love and respect. In my heart of hearts, I’m a hard-nosed journalist — but I’m also kind of a crazy person who supports and follows musicians around until they learn my name and face. Songs From Under The Sink was my introduction to Erik Petersen and company, and I was hooked from the first few chords I heard while I was in high school. During my college years, I could be found front and center at every Mischief Brew show in the tristate area.

Moving to Philadelphia from New York was a monstrous change for me. I was completely alone for the most part and one of the few things that brought me joy was music. Making the trek into the city to see Mischief Brew play was always a big event for me. Over the handful of years going to their shows, they became the soundtrack to my new life in a new city. Their sound captured the noise, color, and history of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania at large and it shaped the way I romanticize this little place.

Songs From Under The Sink is Mischief Brew’s third release, following after Smash The Windows and Bellingham & Philadelphia (a split with Robert Blake). Mischief Brew began as a solo project for Petersen before it evolved into a full-blown band, incorporating a ton of folk instruments with a punk flare. Largely, their songs are inspired by the working class and a deep love of Philly. I became enamored with their witty lyrics, intricate songwriting, and for lack of a better term, their mischievous aesthetic. Mischief Brew were Philadelphia’s ramshackle jokers and their shows were consistently packed to the gills.

This album is a perfect example of what the band was all about: social revolution, old world appreciation, and jovial fun. As each song transitions into the next, a new page is turned into another beautiful, catchy, and sometimes somber track. There is something for everyone on Songs from acoustic ballads to straight up rock n roll and at the end of the band’s career, they became classics. I recall being at one of Petersen’s solo shows in New Jersey at a small art gallery. My most vivid memory of this involved the audience sitting down on the floor in silence and awe as Petersen strummed away through the majority of his set up until he began the first few chords of “Coffee, God, And Cigarettes” — this is when the crowd erupted, stood up, and surrounded the man from all sides screaming the lyrics louder than he could with his microphone.

Petersen was much more than well-loved. He was a voice for the outcasts and thieves that frequented Philadelphia and beyond. For many, Songs From Under The Sink was an anthem of sorts and it was easy to consume, relate to, and play over and over and over again. I made so many friends simply through going to their shows alone, and perhaps most importantly, I befriended Petersen. He and I would keep in touch via Facebook and he would always send me invites to his performances in Philly, New Jersey, and New York, knowing full well that I would be there in the front row.

I eventually pitched him the idea of doing an interview after a set in Brooklyn. It was the dead of winter and we sat huddled in the back of the venue as the snow fell. In the middle of our interview, my recorder stopped working and I was forced to pen the whole thing from my memory. I never told him because I felt like a total noob and I didn’t want to waste his time. He was forever thankful for the support and he was a constant supporter of my writing, regardless of whether it was about him or some other band. I always appreciated him for that.

When Erik died, it shook me to my core. I couldn’t believe it happened and it took a while for me to come to terms with it. To this day, Mischief Brew remains one of my most favorite bands. I continue to list Songs From Under The Sink as a record that shaped me and introduced me to world of folk-punk. I had never heard anything quite like Mischief Brew before and I highly doubt I’ll ever encounter another band who can do this genre better. They defined it, they mastered it, and they never disappointed. Without Mischief Brew around, the city has lost some of its saturation. Songs was the magnet that attracted to me to endless shows, friends, and memories in my journeys through Philadelphia and it impacted my life so greatly. Giving me something to hold on to during my messy years discovering myself in the city of brotherly love was what I needed the most during that time, and there is no other album that came close to making me feel as secure.

Catherine Dempsey (@mallgothdad)
Emo Kid Seeking Hardcore Band

Erik Petersen (1978 – 2016): The folk-punk poet laureate of Philadelphia.

Despite its often sonically rough exterior, in some ways, folk punk just seems to go well with the arrival of spring and summer. Sure, this week’s featured band, Philly based, Mischief Brew, is no batch of beach party songwriters and is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea with its anarchist-minded songwriting source material. Nevertheless, the less aggressive instrumentation (e.g. mandolin, violin, organ!) and usually faster tempos of the sub-genre pair well with long, sun-filled days, loaded to the brim with high energy activities and late night hangouts with friends. I didn’t personally follow the band when they were active (Rest in peace, Erik Petersen.), but the exact make up of sound character for Mischief Brew is hardly an undesirable listen if you are a fan of a band like AJJ (formerly known as Andrew Jackson Jihad), to which I am somewhat partial. There’s an impromptu quality to how all the instrumental parts come through cut to record. Yet, breaking it down even further past the genre’s most general characteristics, there’s nuanced distinction that can make a curious person go from being interested in one band like this, to finding fascination with the whole style. Peterson’s grittier, occasionally gruffer voice and singing style make Mischief Brew feel like a folk punk band that is closer on the musical spectrum to a band like the Dropkick Murphys. Acoustic hyperactivity exists in both. However, unlike the smoother, albeit slightly whiny — and I say that referencing vocal timbre, not personal preference — quality of Sean Bonnette’s lead vocal with AJJ or, something more akin to speak-singing like the folk of Apes Of The State — a folk punk band coincidentally also from Pennsylvania — Peterson sounds almost like a man trying to shake the last of a chest cold but in the moment, singing unabashedly through the residual hoarseness. Add to this the cyclical jig style melodies (“Coffee, God, And Cigarettes,” “The Dreams Of The Morning“) slower anthemic march flow (“Love And Rage,” “Save A City…“), and the rebelliously cynical narratives (“Tell Me A Story,” “Gimme Coffee, Or Death,” “How Did I Get Out Alive?“) of many of the melodies of Songs From Under The Sink and it’s a given Mischief Brew could go right into any celtic punk playlist as well. The only confusing quirk about the music on Songs From Under The Sink and Mischief Brew as a whole, given the sensible parallels in identifying style qualities, is why the band would choose to stay so closely to the line of Irish/Celtic punk while also not “want[ing] to be a celtic punk band” as Petersen stated in this 2011 PunkNews Interview. Then again, seeing as Petersen was all about anarchy, defying expectations, and had a thing for European medieval art, deciding to compose the messages he wanted to share, while being unconcerned with whether the resulting songs aligned with a musical label he didn’t want, is just so fittingly, artistically anarchist, isn’t it?

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

At some point down the road — I’m talking way down, like the flying cars section of the highway — someone is going to look back and marvel at the flexibility of the acoustic guitar as it currently exists. The instrument Mdou Moctar can fingerpick to play hypnotic Tuareg desert blues is the same instrument Bob Dylan strummed while redefining a generation’s perception of what songwriting could be. It’s also the instrument Frank Turner used while opening for Jason Isbell at the Altria Theater a few years back, playing upbeat punk structures with an inviting clarity that was remarkable in how perfectly it embodied his Positive Songs For Negative People album title. I hear that same combination of intensity and invitation on Songs From Under The Sink, with an added sense of stylistic freedom that complements the anarchic political lean of the lyrics. There’s minor key metal (“Tell Me A Story“), wry major key folk (“Children Play With Matches“), and swaying late-night Americana (“The Midnight Special 2002“), all existing peaceably next to multiple tracks with Celtic melodic flourishes that beg for violin accompaniment. My favorite example might be “Coffee, God, And Cigarettes,” in which you get three views of the opening run thanks to the candid inclusion of two botched starts. And while it’s not a departure to use the acoustic guitar when voicing Irish melodies, Erik Petersen consistently elevated what that instrument could do via the profound conviction in the songs on Songs From Under The Sink. Just look at this close-shot live video of “Coffee, God, And Cigarettes.” It’s a bittersweet watch, but he put that instrument to beautiful work.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

If you’re planning an anarchist camping trip, I’d have two suggestions. The first would be to ask everyone to avoid wearing black just this once so you can see them in the dark of the forest. It could be dangerous, otherwise. Someone will inevitably point out that you can’t have any rules at an anarchist campfire and you’ll roll your eyes and turn the music up. That brings me to the second suggestion. Bring along a copy of Songs From Under The Sink. It’s difficult to sound aggressive with nothing but an acoustic guitar, but on this album, Philadelphia’s Erik Petersen is undaunted. In fact he seems to embrace it right down to working hard at an unnatural rasp. Somewhere he learned that punk is more about attitude than aesthetic. It could easily be confused with an acoustic concept-album, but it’s less pretentious than that. “Tell Me A Story” isn’t your typical campfire song, snarled out over blistering fast guitar work which is deceivingly simplistic. There’s a lot of sophistication to what’s happening on this record. Somehow despite being from Philadelphia, the band manage to pull off a believable Celtic flavour. They’re a long way from the highlands, but in everything from vocal and writing style to the appearance of mandolins and piano, this album would feel at home on a playlist with The Mahones. In that way, it’s somewhere between Violent Femmes and Flogging Molly, but every track has an anthemic feel that’s contagious. The theatrical element to the performance can be a little jarring at first. But shaking things up is what anarchists do. You might think that the record would benefit from being somewhat sunken under layers of three-chord guitar riffs, distortion, and feedback. Isolate it with nothing but a guitar and some electric backing, however, and Petersen makes a conscious decision to go all in. The instruments simply do their best to keep up. I don’t know that starting a fire in the woods with a bunch of anarchists is a smart idea, but I can tell you this — watching them all sing along to “How Did I Get Out Alive?” would probably be the anarchist team-building moment you’re looking for. If you have to be angry, might as well have some fun with it.

Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage

Ah, the folk-punk era. I lived through it; that time in the mid-’00s when half the bands on any punk show you went to featured acoustic guitars, banjos, or violins among their instrumentation, and it seemed like everyone was listening to old Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly records right alongside the new releases on Plan-It-X Records. A scene this youthfully earnest, one that could sometimes be painfully wide-eyed and idealistic, couldn’t last but so long. And honestly, once it really got rolling in earnest, it became a necessary task to separate the wheat from the chaff; for every high-quality band that managed to stand the test of time (usually by moving beyond the sometimes-gimmicky acoustic instrumentation and suffocatingly dogmatic lyrics common in the genre), there were a bunch more that became tedious rather quickly. Mischief Brew were right in the midst of this whole mix; I saw them as a solo act once, in 2006 at an infoshop that went defunct within a few months (as they all seemed to do), and again in 2011 at Stay Sweet Fest, this time as a four-piece. The second performance impressed me more; the songs connected with me more strongly in electrified, full-band arrangements, and the decision to cover Guided By Voices’ “Motor Away” (which none of the young pop-punk kids seemed to recognize) definitely caught my attention. In my experience, the later Mischief Brew material was better and more fully-formed, but Songs From Under The Sink is an early collection, released in 2006 and collecting material already several years old at the time. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it as a result, but most of these tunes won me over right away. The folk-country influences show through in a lot of these tunes, with old-time song structures and bouncing basslines that make me think of western swing and European folk music. Opener “Thanks, Bastards!,” which became somewhat of a folk-punk anthem over the years, demonstrates just how well these wide-ranging influences can smoothly integrate into a defiant punk rock anthem full of singalong melodies and anti-authoritarian rage. But for me, it’s songs like “Tell Me A Story” that connect most strongly; its minor-key melody and ocean of acoustic guitar tracks helps bring home the emotion behind the fiery political commentary in the lyrics. This is what the best folk-punk does; it happens all too rarely, and before frontman Erik Peterson died in 2016, Mischief Brew were one of the most reliable deliverers in the genre. I don’t miss folk-punk’s heyday, but I do miss this band.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

Initially a solo effort, Petersen recruited a full band that helped flesh out his sound and complement its acoustic core.

In all the beauty that surrounds after the long gray of winter, we forget sometimes how violent springtime is. Mewling pink faces of swaddled newborns pluck out our tenderness, and we leave behind the ripped flesh, the blood on the floor, that brought them here. Lovers read adoring bits of poetry or the sappy sentiment of pop lyrics and forget the passionate throes and wrenching heartbreak that came before pen went to paper. Leaves unfurl and buds explode open, spewing the yellow-green pollen of that recreation all over us, and we focus on the newly rediscovered pinks and purples and greens of spring without considering the force that goes behind that sheen. Writing from a pollen-soaked porch, the soundtrack could hardly be more fitting than Mischief Brew, with its clashing but harmonious elements. In the trills and often melancholy guitar riffs of Songs From Under The Sink, there’s the beauty of musical heritage at play. Pulled from Gypsy-rock and folk, there’s an ever-present, jaunty cheerfulness to the tracks. Never letting us forget the violence behind the music, though, is Erik Petersen, the lead vocalist and guitarist in the band, whose crass vocal stylings run a jagged edge through any chiming mandolin. With lyrics spanning the humorous mundane to his anarchist reality, there’s a charming but punk view of the world, an uncompromising but still somehow light-hearted collection of tracks that will leave you tapping your foot even as you curse the flowers.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

Mischief Brew has always been band that I wanted to listen to more, but for one reason or another the timing never seemed to work out. Not because I found the music uninteresting… quite the opposite as I feel like I’ve been pretty vocal about my love of punk rock in previous issues, and I’m also a sucker for acoustic-based stuff like early Against Me!, Defiance, Ohio, or (as most of you likely remember) Chumbawamba. Even though they checked off a lot of boxes all at once, I was never in the right headspace for Mischief Brew to really hook their claws into me — even after Erik Petersen passed away, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to an album all the way through. This is a long-winded way of me saying that I’m glad Catherine picked a Mischief Brew album this week, because now I had to listen to it. And if I had to say there were a single Mischief Brew album that I knew better (regardless of how intimately) than the others, it would be Songs From Under the Sink. I’ll admit right now that it is 100% because of “Thanks, Bastards!,” but upon re-listening to it I realize there’s a lot more to the album than just that one song. As a quick Google search will tell you, Songs From Under the Sink is the band’s sophomore album, but is made up entirely of songs written during the band’s earliest days, with some possibly dating back to before Petersen officially started using the Mischief Brew moniker. Because of this, the songs have a lot of different qualities to them, creating a unique entry in Mischief Brew’s legacy. On the A-side, there’s “Tell Me A Story,” which has a showman-like quality to it that’s not unlike the bombastic grandiosity of the World/Inferno Friendship Society (now would be a good time to remind everyone that Franz Nicolay, formerly of WIFS, had a handful of ties with Mischief Brew, including a guest spot on Smash The Windows and releasing a split LP together), but then on the flip side, there’s “Coffee, God, And Cigarettes,” which isn’t very showy, but is still a fun punk tune. The repeated lyrics of “Children Play With Matches” hint at an influence of the blues just as much as it does the Ramones. I think one of the reasons I could never get into the right mental place when it came to Mischief Brew is that I had this very specific idea of what to expect their music to sound like (once again, I’ll point in the direction of “Thanks, Bastards!”), when the reality of the band is that their music can’t be pegged down so simply like that. Armed with this knowledge, I feel like I’m ready to take a dive into the rest of the Mischief Brew discography.

Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie

When I first saw the album artwork and saw some of the track titles, I was a bit apprehensive and didn’t quite know what to expect. While some of the songs aren’t really my style, I was pleasantly surprised by a few. “Save A City…” in particular I really enjoy. It’s got great musicality — a nice acoustic guitar gives it a laid back vibe, even though the lyrics might not be. I could picture that song being performed at the concert and the crowd just singing in unison with their lighters swaying in the air. I tend to gravitate towards songs that remind me of big moments and I don’t know — to me, there is definitely a moment there. “How Did I Get Out Alive?” is another highlight. It has that similar chilled out acoustic guitar sound, which clearly I enjoy. The running acoustic theme throughout the album was pretty enjoyable too. Eschewing the heavy electric vide gives this a nice vibe — almost bluegrass or folksy in a way — and nice to just play by the pool on a nice sunny day.

Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast

So this record is way out of my wheelhouse. But that’s what I love so much about OYR — it’s not just about introducing our readers to great records, it’s about our fellow contributors too. I really enjoyed the energy of Songs From Under The Sink. Maybe “energy” isn’t the right word. Maybe “fervor” is more appropriate. The fervor with which the lead singer tells stories is infectious. Whether it’s a happy song or a sober ballad, our tour guide through the world of Mischief Brew is really enthused to be there. You know that Irish folk song that the DJ throws on at last call, and the entire bar (or pub) is roaring with drunken idiocy set to music? Well, Songs From Under The Sink is that song for forty five minutes in a row! I enjoyed the straight-forward style of storytelling on tracks like “Children Play With Matches” and “Coffee, God, And Cigarettes.” There’s nothing to figure out here. Just sit back and enjoy the tunes for what they are. If these are the songs they put under the sink, I’d sure like to hear the ones they put on the mantle.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Petersen’s politics were at the front of each song, but they always seemed to be overshadowed by his vocal bluster and instrumental rage.

I was freshman in high school when Dubya was first elected, and I started college when he was reelected. So a Bush 43-era protest album definitely takes me back. Lotsa memories. All the memories. I had, however, forgotten all the protest music that came out during his administration — Green Day, Pearl Jam, Rock Against Bush, Eminem (sigh), et cetera. But I’d never heard Songs From Under The Sink before. There’s nothing inherently special about their brand of politicking here. It’s mostly standard fare for leftist-ish dissenting. Yet while lyrics like “Tell me a story, settle the cards / Give me a cause for the foreign wars / Wrap me up in our flag / And let the bombs fall where they may” is a fairly average criticism, Erik Petersen’s broken-in shoe, cigarette-scarred snarl sells them just the same. He’s a gifted musician, sure, but his voice is what makes these songs work. He believes wholeheartedly what he’s singing and because of that, you believe him, too. It also helps that there’s some fun to be had. The bar band feel makes it easy to picture him playing to a cramped club with the stench of cheap beer wafting through a group of drunks singing over Petersen instead of with him. And, of course, he can be funny. I chortled multiple times. Examples: the entire premise of “Children Play With Matches” (especially the final lines), as well as his admission that he’s going to hell for “Coffee, God, And Cigarettes.” You can get people thinking with political songs, but it’s easier to get your point across (and likely more effective) if you can get the other person to laugh. Even getting a smile out of someone breaks down one’s defenses. I imagine Petersen knew this as well as anybody.

Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That

Mischief Brew is the hugely underrated folk/punk solo project of the late Erik Petersen. His up-tempo music blends perfectly with clever lyrics to produce something entirely unique which is a testament considering that within both the folk and punk genres respectively, creativity is always a crucial element. This tongue-in-cheek virtuoso was a force to be reckoned with and will be sorely missed by all his friends and fans worldwide. Songs From Under The Sink is playful, insightful, and bold, as it tackles themes like corruption, addiction, hopelessness, rage, and love, and injects them with an irresistibly cheery rhythm and delivers them to the masses in a hugely uplifting, cathartic way. Although widely regarded to be predominantly politically charged, Petersen’s work showcases a steadfast empathy for humanity. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his political insights, Petersen’s tone, digestible language, and sense of humor amalgamate into a powerful magnetism that captivates audiences of all backgrounds and varying musical tastes. Songs From Under The Sink is by far my favorite release from Mischief Brew and I personally feel that this album is a great springboard for first time listeners to get immersed in the widely popular folk/punk fusion genre from years ago.

Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making

It shouldn’t be any surprise that I really loved this album. I love excellent anti-establishment music that you could play at an open mic night. It works for the same reason that anarchic hip-hop musicians like P.O.S are so effective. The message becomes even more powerful, it seems to me, when you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel on things like a memorable electric guitar riff. I can very easily imagine the music being performed at intimate coffee houses as well as on movie or TV soundtracks. Another thing I love about this album is the fact that it is an honest and nostalgia-free look at what it was like to live in the aftermath of September 11th, which I experienced too. I truly feel like this band is carrying on the traditions of protest music often associated with Woody Guthrie. And when I find a band that makes me feel that way, it’s only a matter of time before I’ve done a deep dive on their discography. I’m looking forward to many late nights spent imbibing as much Mischief Brew as I can get my hands on.

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

By the time Erik Petersen started to make a name for himself with his band The Orphans in the ’90s, punk rock had already begun moving away from the socio-political commentary it had cut its teeth on, trading sharp takedowns on everything from Nazi culture to Reaganomics for introspective reflections and witty repartee. Petersen seemed right at home in that change-over, penning songs like “The Government Stole My Germs CD,” which seemed to bridge the two lyrical mindsets with simplistic passion and unique flair. A few years later though, when Petersen began writing music under the name Mischief Brew, it seemed punk rock had finished its migration, landing in a place that seemed content in specifically dissecting the obstacles and follies of youth. But instead of minding that tenuous bridge between past and present, Petersen seemed to revert back to the origin, going back further than punk rock itself and landing in the vision of the protest song. In this manner, he was as much punk rock music as The Clash was on Combat Rock — still very willing to break the rules and buck the establishment, but also ready to put behind the distorted power chords and let a memorable tune elevate his own words into something bigger than himself. Granted, The Clash did it with experimentation, while Petersen did so with reimagination like on the opening track to Songs From Under The Sink, “Thanks, Bastards!” He takes down those in power who helped proliferate the generational cycle of poverty and crime (“Thanks, bastards! / You made me what I am / Thanks, bastards! / I took the goods and ran”), but does so while singing over top an instrumental that mixes ’50s guitar sway and ’70s AM radio in a way that could have closed out any high school prom. Might be hard to imagine that as Petersen’s malleable voice commands so much of your attention, and from all over the place too — his whimsical “la-da-da-da” quickly turns into a ruthless snarl that seems to feed off the lyrical dissent. Later on in the record, on “Love And Rage,” he posits “I think of the power of song / And the history it brings along,” and it’s a thought you can tell ran through Petersen’s mind as he created music for Mischief Brew. While others had loftier, rockoperatic ideas of protest (which I believe are valid and commendable too), Petersen knew how much power lay in simple notes and words. You may need a few things from time to time to fill it out and complement the sound, but why overcrowd the message when the best protest songs came from a voice and a guitar? This is the beauty of Mischief Brew, and the genius of Erik Peterson, on full display on this sterling protest record.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
Shallow by Sea Oleena
Chosen By David Munro

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Hannah Angst, Laura Burroughs, Erin Calvert, Catherine Dempsey, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Chelsea Kostrey, Steve Lampiris, David Munro, Drew Necci, Jeremy Shatan, & Darryl Wright

Logo By Matt Klimas


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