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The Karl Hendricks Trio

The Jerks Win Again
Merge Records

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In the basement of a trendy New York City rock club, in 1993, Karl Hendricks and his eponymous Trio played their geek-rock hearts out for a half-full crowd of interminably hip CMJ-conference attendees, goofball New Yorkers and a strong Pittsburgh contingent, allegedly there to make sure somebody shouted. We needn't have worried. I'll never forget the bespectacled Ghost World chickies, screaming through their tears: "I love you Karl!"

It wasn't, of course, Fabio hair or muscle-bound build that reduced normally cynical ladies to crumbling teens. No, it was the fact that Hendricks was (and is) the poet laureate of an alienated class that's been taught consistently that it has no problems: the college-educated children of a class that's well north of "working poor," but still lagging far behind the comfort that they once aspired to. KHT is like reality street-punk for college-radio geeks: people who have to struggle daily in their graphic design jobs just to make ends meet, but who certainly don't feel entitled to bitch about it.

"Still, meaningless words are all we've got left / in a thoroughly corrupted world / you keep on pretending it matters / and I'll keep on singing about girls," Hendricks bawls on "Chuck Dukowski Was Confused," the lead track from The Karl Hendricks Trio's new album The Jerks Win Again. It's a statement of intent, invoking one of the pantheon of gods from Hendricks's High Fidelity world as a way of both challenging Hendricks' forebears -- in this case the original existentialist Black Flag'er and, in the same breath, Wallace Stevens -- and embracing their fellow loser-ship. In other words, Karl Hendricks may not have released an album in five years, but that doesn't mean that he's given up on being the most successful loser in independent rock. And with The Jerks Win Again, you can bet those same girls who used to spend weekends reading zines instead of hittin' the mall will be crying once again.

It's as if the five years since Declare Your Weapons have seen Hendricks subtly mutate his life and his art (family life, fatherhood, the Rock Band, the all-new-yet-very-familiar Trio, now with drummer Jake Leger and bassist Caulen Kress) in ways that led him to a more viable understanding of what he's done all along. The Jerks is populated with the same kinds of beautiful losers as before, but this time they're perhaps a little less personal: obese lovers, baseball spaceman Bill Lee, fuck-ups who leave the girl they love " & at Dunkin' Donuts in Cleveland" and spend their money on cases of warm beer.

Tellingly, "New Wave Situation" looks at the way that anarchic youth gives in to responsibility, the same way perhaps that punk rock inevitably led to more palatable, more compromised, new wave. "You'd like to tell responsibility to just fuck off / But feeling is no longer the boss / and I guess punk rock lost." It's one of The Jerks best songs, and it displays Hendricks's real genius. In the horribilism of post-ironic America, all serious artistic thought has to get passed through a pretension test. But if Hendricks croons, "People with any kind of fashion sense won't sit next to me / no matter how crowded the bus or how great the movie," over anxious pop-rock, he's disarmed you already.

The Trio's music follows similar philosophy. On "The Night Has No Eyes," for example, Hendricks's heavily distorted guitar and Leger's Albini-big drums swagger around each other with nothing but a bass guitar keeping things together. It's crassly tuneless and meandering, disguising the fact that it's -- well -- a multi-minute solo on a pop record. The Jerks is filled with these interstitial solos (I don't dare use the J-word); enough that at times, such as on the 13-minute, disc-ending "The Summer of Warm Beer," one almost wonders if the extensions are just to bring this eight-song disc out to full length.

But on closer inspection, the full allotment of confused guitar warbling reveals itself as integral to this new Trio. Otherwise, some of these epics would be too easily passed off as pop songs (of which The Jerks Win Again has more than a few, to be sure, even if they are called things like "Thank God We Have Limes" and "I Think I Forgot Something & My Pants").
The Jerks Win Again is a real victory over the windmills of jerk-hood, not just because The Karl Hendricks Trio has produced yet another minor masterpiece of pop-rock, but because it proves that the band will keep tilting, long after the enemies have won

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