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Rediscover: Lifetime: Jersey’s Best Dancers

Rediscover: Lifetime: Jersey’s Best Dancers

Lifetime’s influence, the legacy left behind by Jersey’s Best Dancers is a far-reaching and complex network of branches.

Legacy is a matter of scale. The heroes of the punk rock and hardcore subcultures may not have been heard by radio listeners or casual music fans, but they have reshaped worlds in their own right. Lifetime is a band full of those heroes. And their influence has been felt, for better or worse, over the last 20 years even by those who may not have known it.

Lifetime’s initial career was short (more on that later) and their output was limited. While Ari Katz and Dan Yemin were inspired by and reveled in East Coast and New York hardcore in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, they didn’t emulate it. Instead, they created something that could rival the genre’s guts and teeth without relying on imitation. The early evidence of these attempts could be heard in their tossing off the musical brutality and vocal violence of the era’s hardcore bands. They kept the frantic speed and song structure, but matched it with melodic vocals with a more personal message and more positive, upbeat sound. However, they didn’t merely sonically distance themselves, they also subverted their influences while maintaining a level of respect and reverence. As such, their entire image was formulated to feature their differences. They slapped a photograph of sunflowers onto the cover of their debut LP, Background, and sold merch featuring line sketches of flowers and children holding hands. With each release, they became more upbeat, more confident and more fun to listen to than many of their contemporaries. By the time they released Hello Bastards in 1995, the band had found their sound and turned the concept of what hardcore music was supposed to be on its ear. They weren’t just a hardcore band anymore. But they also couldn’t be labeled pop punk or emo either.

With the 1997 release of Jersey’s Best Dancers, Lifetime had perfected their sound. Guitarists Dan Yemin and Pete Martin had struck a balance between melody and intricacy, crafting chord progressions that were atypical, innovative and hellacious fun and accompanying them with simple, three or four note riffs that added depth and emotion to the frenetic, breakneck affair. Ari Katz had also perfected his mumbly, energetic vocal stylings by getting a better grip on infectious melody and adding it to hardcore’s almost hip-hop-esque cadences. With Dave Palaitis and Scott Golley holding down the low end on bass and drums respectively, the speed was never compromised, the gut-rumbling weight was never lost and, goddammit, they were just as interesting to listen to as the lead instruments.

Jersey’s Best Dancers’ structure is fairly one-sided to an unseasoned listener. It has three gears, really: driving mid-tempo rock, heavy two-step stomp and blazing fastbeat. But the records’ genius comes from where these shifts take place on both a micro and macro scale. “Turnpike Gates” begins like a sports car revving its engine and then takes off at full speed. Katz’ vocals match the speed, his syllables emphasizing the chord changes with melody to set the hook. With a brief, bouncy palm-muted break in the tempo, Katz’ lyrics accompany the short but more emotional tone as he sings “You gave it all/ I gave you reason to have doubt” before the song ramps back up to full speed.

Diagramming the beginning of the opening track is important because it does two things: it establishes that the foundational structure of each song depends on the emotional weight of the lyrics and vice versa. Each song shifts gears in seemingly random places, but, in reality, each shift is a calculated and controlled move to make the music and lyrics congeal into a cohesive whole. These emotional changes and mood shifts are what separates Lifetime and Jersey’s Best Dancers from the other hardcore and punk acts of the era.

Jersey’s Best Dancers, as a complete body of work, is put together in a similar fashion. “Young, Loud, and Scotty” uses two notes to give the palm-muted, mid-tempo beat a sense of hopeful anticipation until it explodes into a lightspeed fit of lyrical disappointment. “Francie Nolan” is deceptive in the way it builds. With potential to be a heavier emotional lament, the chords ring out after the introduction and pause for a beat, a moment, until the band brings the speed once again.

“Hey Catrine” is the difference-maker here. Right smack in the center of this sprint through emotional depth and pain is a chugging, heavy breakup song with more melody than any previous Lifetime tune. It’s placement on the record displays the nuanced use of traditional techniques to create something that pays homage and innovates at the same time. The album, of course, returns to the breakneck speed present earlier. The songs are as consistently balanced as the earlier tracks and allow this short, frenzied record to run the gamut from mindless punk fun to cerebral genre-work and everything in between.

Lifetime’s influence, the legacy left behind by Jersey’s Best Dancers is a far-reaching and complex network of branches. In giving the record another listen after some time, there may be a few things that you’ll notice. Modern pop punk is a direct descendant of the band. Granted, New Found Glory lacks the balls to veer too far from their pop sensibilities, Saves the Day hasn’t been playing punk for 15 years and A Day to Remember hasn’t the talent nor ability to do much else but emulate their influences. But consider this: those bands sold a ton of records, and they’re just three of the monetarily successful acts that have cited Lifetime as an influence. Let’s not forget Kid Dynamite, Paint It Black, None More Black, The Loved Ones and Armalite. Those bands descend from Lifetime in various forms and are important contributors to punk rock and hardcore to this day. Like Jersey’s Best Dancers, the band’s influence on music has to be viewed with a telescoping perspective to grasp the full effect, to see the full picture.

Regardless of the implications of Lifetime’s legacy—good, bad or in between—and the fact that they’ve been kicking around again since reuniting in 2005, they are directly credited for a generation of new punk rock and hardcore fans. The band, their limited discography, and their brief initial lifespan made them an important wavelength in the underlying currents of American music. Yes, Lifetime will only receive proper credit from those looking to dig into the past, but Jersey’s Best Dancers is relevant today because bands continue to try to replicate the power, energy and musical perspective therein. Which is sort of funny, isn’t it? Lifetime tried to do something different, and now bands want to capture what it is to be Lifetime. How’s that for a legacy?

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