If taken as a strict literal, is there anything worse than “Heat Wave” by Diarrhea Planet? Already inhabiting a lyrical planet of liquefied shit, and now, the summer, the humidity, this fucking heat. You imagine it isn’t a dry heat either. As far as evocative imagery goes, Eden, it’s not. Nonetheless, “Heat Wave” is the lead single from latest EP, Aliens in the Outfield, from Nashville sextet Diarrhea Planet.
The band has always courted a certain subversiveness: scuzzy pop-punk songs with titles like “Ghost With A Boner” and “Hot Spit”. The band has also never lacked for a sense of self—if Titus Andronicus sought to wear (or maybe just display) punk’s blue collar, Diarrhea Planet wanted to remind you that blue collar workers cleaned toilets. And yet, Diarrhea Planet has grown more and more approachable with each successive release, denying some of the supposed and oft-sarcastic sleaze that colored their first releases. With Aliens in the Outfield, an album that phonetically borrows its title from a Disney movie, Diarrhea Planet offer some of their most poppy creations to date. It is anything but gross. For a band that opened their debut LP with a yelled intro, a la the Violent Femmes’ Greatest Hits, “Long live Diarrhea Planet”, it grows less and less clear what that might mean—a problematic if bright future.
The band still tries to court the fuzzy muck of their previous releases, though lyrically they’re less sure. Nearly going out of their way to prove their misanthropic qualities on second track, “Platinum Girls”, singer Brent Toler sings, “I could never be a nice guy/ but I’d be your twenty-times a night guy.” As if to invoke the image of the old Byronic hero, Diarrhea Planet seem to need their audience to believe they’re still a dangerous proposition, the kind of guy or guys you wouldn’t bring home to your father. But like the narrator in Wuthering Heights, Mr. Lockwood, certain he can match the actual darkness and brooding qualities of Heathcliff, Diarrhea Planet now appear more interested in posturing toward depravity than being depraved. The Byronic hero, the Heathcliffs of the world, after all, offer a high bar for darkness. As Lockwood finds in Wuthering Heights, it may well be attractive to appear as a Byronic hero, but the actual being of one is another matter entirely. On “Platinum Girls”, Toler sings, “Let me take you to the dark side” before the chorus reveals some of his gooey innards: “I just want a small piece of your time.” The chiming guitar solo of the song’s final movement countervails the chunky arrangement undercurrents, basically, the same good-evil dichotomy that lies in the lyrics playing out between the rhythm and lead guitar. If Diarrhea Planet are supposed bad boys, they also seek weakness in this role.
Lead-track, “Heat Wave” provides a similar bifurcation. Opening to a snorting, ripping arrangement, “Heat Wave” has Smith vocally strutting all over its first movement. The soft center of the song is as winsome a melody as the band has ever penned or sung, at home in the current climate of emo revival. The chunky guitars peel back to reveal a vulnerable Smith singing, “But you should know that I’d be glad to have you here.” The lead guitar heads to the top of the room for a respite of 45-seconds before Smith invokes the return to the song’s propulsive first movement with the line, “I can’t stand all of this waiting.” And it is this line that describes the current positioning of Diarrhea Planet: increasingly poppy and approachable while still at least interested in the depths of misanthropy. Some of the weakness, if there is any, of Aliens in the Outfield lies in the schism between who the band has been and who they might be. “Heat Wave” is one of their best songs, and also sounds, at times, only a little like the band’s previous work. That this conversation between recent past and looming future happens in the liminal packaging of an EP not an LP, is also appropriate—it’s an album that isn’t quite an album.
Other outliers appear here, granting Aliens in the Outfield some of the subversive qualities of collage and pastiche—a collection of found songs. “Spooners”, the very excellent single from the Adult Swim singles series, arrives as the penultimate of the five tracks, a song Diarrhea Planet fans will have already heard. What all this means will be decided by the band’s next LP, not by this partial confabulation of the band’s past. With a name and early sound built to turn out fans and turn away others, Diarrhea Planet now confronts a future of wider appeal: apparent darkness set against looming light. Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchinson, another guy who had a hard time deciding how catchy to make misery, once sang to a jilting lover, “You’re the shit, and I’m knee deep in it.” It was attraction and disgust at once. It was a compliment, as is Aliens in the Outfield, though an uncertain one at that. We are neck deep in the shit, like Lockwood descending into the morass of Wuthering Heights, none of us emerge from the unfolding world of Diarrhea Planet entirely clean.