The unexamined life is not worth living, supposedly said Socrates. Despite odds working against him – losing bandmates, having a day job, generalized malaise – Jason Unterreiner, the main force behind Portland-based indie-pop-punk band Wood Burning Cat, takes that quote to heart. Listening to the lyrics on his new album, “Karate Trophies,” would certainly make you think that. Candidness is one of his strongest points.
“I think a lot of bands don’t approach their own lyrics with any kind of scrutiny,” said Unterreiner, who writes the songs, sings and plays guitar on the album, his second official release as Wood Burning Cat since 2009’s “Borono.” “The reason I write the lyrics and the songs that I do is that when I try write other types of songs I don’t end up happy with them. Some people can remove themselves from their songs, but I can’t do that. I don’t feel legitimate if it’s not expressive on a personal level.”
Unterreiner, an Aroostook County native, moved from Orono to Portland in 2009, and in the process had to rebuild his band, which now includes Jeff Hamm on drums and Joel Glidden, formerly of Portland band Huak, on synthesizer. It took him several years to write the songs on “Karate Trophies,” a frustrating period for him, creatively speaking – though he did become a father to a now two-year-old baby, and he did immerse himself further in Portland’s vibrant music scene. About a year ago, he felt ready to record them, and began to work with producer Mike Cunnane, also the drummer for the Rattlesnakes and Sunset Hearts, who has a mobile recording studio. The pair spent most of 2012 recording the album with Glidden and Hamm.
In keeping with Unterreiner’s previous albums, “Karate Trophies” combines an unabashed love of 1990s pop punk and emo with a penchant for electronic noise and post-punk guitar. It’s incredibly melodic, even as it buzzes with occasional dissonance and revolves around his deeply felt, confessional lyrics. Though his words may, on the surface, appear a bit on the cynical side, what they really show is someone that’s incredibly frustrated with a lot of things in his life, but he secretly hopes for the best.
Nowhere is Unterreiner’s mix of pop and dissonance more on display than on the song “Coke Machine,” a seven-minute epic that starts as a pop song, and ends as a five-minute rant about his seemingly inescapable insecurity and self-doubt.
“I kind of wade into meta territory. I call the second half of the song my Ira Glass section,” he said. “One result of having that year-long break from the band was that I had more time to think about where I stand as a musician, and I think that’s definitely reflected in the music on his album. It was a frustrating and negative period, but I think the music is probably better for it… that song definitely flowed pretty torrentially out of me.”
Elsewhere, though, are the 2.5 minute warped pop-punk songs Unterreiner is so good at, as on album opener “J.S.F.F.D.” or the jangly but heartbreakingly sad “Muscles Pull.”