EP review: ‘Make It Happen,’ The Rock n’ Roll Hi-Fives

Hi-Fives

The six-song EP “Make It Happen,” by the Rock n’ Roll Hi-Fives.

Make It Happen
The Rock n’ Roll Hi-Fives

From: Joe Centeno, the guitarist and support singer of the Rock N’ Roll Hi-Fives, has been a hard man to miss in Hudson County for a long time. That’s not just because of his voluminous locks: he’s also been a key member of two very good local bands. Plug Spark Sanjay, a group that came on like a heavier version of Built to Spill, practically lived at Maxwell’s at the turn of the millennium; American Watercolor Movement, a more experimental outfit with songs like hallucinatory travelogues, scored the tumult of mid-’00s Jersey City. The Rock n’ Roll Hi-Fives band photo suggests strongly that Centeno doesn’t live in Hudson County anymore. In it, he’s making loud music with the rest of his band in a basement practice space outfitted for that purpose, and good luck finding a neighborhood in Jersey City that’d currently let a rocker get away with that.

Format: Six-song EP. Since the members of the Rock n’ Roll Hi-Fives face substantial obstacles to touring — and since they’re unlikely to play midnight shows at corner bars — the best way to sample what they’re doing is by visiting their Bandcamp page. (rocknrollhifives.bandcamp.com).

Genre: Make It Happen is children’s music, but not because of Dan Zanes-style songs about cheerful trains. This is children’s music because there are actual children in the band. Centeno’s own children, to be exact: preteen Evren and almost-teen Eilee. Not that you’d necessarily know this if you weren’t looking at a photo of the group or paying close attention to the lyrics. To a casual listener, the Rock n’ Roll Hi-Fives would come across as a likably bratty punk rock outfit adorned with a wailing frontwoman who didn’t sound any younger than Joanna Newsom did on the Milk Eyed Mender, or Rivers Cuomo did on the first Weezer album. That that frontwoman is actually a frontgirl is immaterial. Like the Smoosh sisters or Kelly Mayo of Skating Polly, the Centenos are kids who derive their punk authenticity from their early adoption of an aesthetic associated with much older musicians. The difference here is that they’re doing it right alongside their father, who supplements his parental supervision with heavy six-string riffs.

Arrangements and Sound: Mom is involved, too. Gloree Centeno handles bass guitar while Evren, who she brought into the world less than a decade ago, hits the skins. Make It Happen was recorded with slapdash charm by Joe Centeno’s longtime pal Mike Moebius at Moonlight Mile Recording in Jersey City, and unsurprisingly, he emphasizes Dad’s muscular guitar in the mixes.

What’s this record about? “Don’t waste your time getting old/Enjoy the show,” sings Eilee Centeno on “Good With the Bad.” That’s a sentiment that can apply to parents and kids alike, and a rock ‘n’ roll outlook that transcends generational differences. Eilee mentions running late for biology class in “I’m Not Your Girlfriend,” but given the subject matter, even that feels more like a metaphor than a declaration of youth. The serious “Lost and Found” is the only song on the collection that seems to have been written from a grown-up perspective, and not so coincidentally, it’s the least compelling track here. More characteristic of the Rock n’ Roll Hi-Fives: “Get Up!” and “Make It Happen,” the self-affirmative, motivational songs that close the collection. But Eilee is no cheerleader, and Make It Happen works best when it reveals her to be an idiosyncratic 12-year-old — the kind who might have been raised by a couple of veterans of the Hudson County pop scene. “Something tells me I’m not gonna be the most popular one,” she frets, in a moment of clarity, on “Come Around.” She’s already decided she’s going to be a nonconformist, see, and if you listen close enough, you can hear her weighing the pleasures against the perils.

The singer: Eilee Centeno’s pitch can be inexact, and her time isn’t always perfect, but this is punk rock, so you’re not going to care. She’s got the important stuff down: she knows what parts of the song to emphasize and when to step back and let the instruments do the pushing. Eilee is also good at communicating compassion, which is a handy skill to build a career around. When everything is working for her, she’s reminiscent of a pair of fine pop-punk vocalists — Mariel Loveland of the Candy Hearts and Stella Maxwell of Cruiserweight. That could be her future if she doesn’t do something foolish like, say, devoting herself to astrophysics. Daddy Joe sings a bunch on Make It Happen, too: he doesn’t take the lead very often, but he does support his daughter with broad unison backing vox. When he does, it’s like he’s thrown his arm around his child while waiting in line to ride the log flume.

The musicians: Gloree Centeno’s bass lines don’t stray too far from the roots of Joe Centeno’s guitar chords. The parts still anchor the songs, but they never ask for attention. Similarly, Evren Centeno puts discipline ahead of flash, and while there are times when the songs could benefit from a big fill that its currently beyond his capabilities, his simplicity isn’t a problem, and hey, what were you doing when you were 9, anyway? Me, I was racing matchbox cars and making an ass of myself on the jungle gym. For a kid to be a capable rock drummer while still in single digits is a major achievement and a testament to Centeno genetics. It’s true that punk is easier to play than Stravinsky, but there are many musicians who have been trying to do it for decades and still can’t get it right. Joe Centeno’s guitar is the thick backbone of the group, but as his children age, he won’t have to hold things together as much as he does here. Presuming he can keep the family band together, that is. (I hear teenagers have minds of their own these days.) Fans of Centeno’s prior bands should be aware that their local hero is not anywhere near as experimental with the six-string in his suburban basement as he was when he was shaking up the J.C. streets. He takes a few leads, but keeps them tasteful; otherwise, he chugs like “Stacy’s Mom” and riffs like Superchunk. You like that stuff?; you will not complain.

The songs: Basic major-chord punk, catchy singalong choruses that arrive punctually. My personal favorite is “Come Around,” but that has more to do with Eilee’s performance than anything compositional. I can imagine a Plug Spark Sanjay fan feeling let down by the economy of the songwriting, but I’d expect those feelings of disappointment to vanish in the time it takes to tap a toe.

What makes this record different from others like it? Ben Krieger once wrote and recorded a really beautiful, really sad song called “Mom and Dad Play Rock and Roll.” Ben’s position as booking agent at the Sidewalk Cafe gives him a front-row seat at the slow dissolution of people’s superstar dreams, but you don’t actually have to deal with aging musicians professionally to know the story. Rock, and punk rock in particular, is supposed to be a game for youth. Krieger’s contention in “Mom And Dad” was that there’s no reason that rock can’t be a lifetime sport — even if you’ve grown up and gotten a responsible job (and there’s no more responsible job than parenting), you can still put your self-consciousness aside and plug in and play. Now, Joe Centeno has never come across as the kind of musician who’d be embarrassed to do anything in the chase for the perfect lick, and that’s why fans of local music have always responded so well to him. I can easily imagine him at 80, or 180, onstage at Maxwell’s Digital Roadhouse with a souped-up Gibson and a big white beard. So I don’t think for a second that he’s turned to the family band concept because he’s worried that he’s too old to rock out on his own. He just thinks his wife and kids are cool, and you know what?, Make It Happen is indisputable proof that he’s right.

What’s not so good? If there’s a whiff of rock-school tutelage about this project, that’s probably an inevitable consequence of the setup: he’s always been a pro, or a semi-pro, and Evren and Eilee were toddlers not so long ago. I do wish Joe Centeno would back off the distortion a little when his daughter is singing — there are times when I can’t make out the words of songs that beg for a singalong response from listeners. But I could probably hurl the same accusation at every other punk rock guitarist in the galaxy. I understand it’s part of the style, and I’ve been banging my head against this particular brick wall for decades now, so if Eilee doesn’t mind, I suppose Dad can crank it up and do as he likes.

Recommended? My father was a professional doo-wop singer in the 1950s and ’60s. My momma is one of those lovable-irritating people who is effortlessly good at everything she does, and could have picked up an instrument any time she liked. I also have a kid sister who is basically a waaaaaay new and improved version of me. At 12 (or 9) I would have loved to join a family pop-rock act and hit stages at barbecues and block parties. My parents would have been more inclined to enroll us in lion-taming classes. They weren’t alone: a preoccupation with rock was not to be encouraged in an otherwise upstanding child. Punk rock was considered particularly unsavory. The existence of the Rock n’ Roll Hi-Fives may or may not suggest that times have changed: my guess is that for every Danielson Famile or Boyd Dupree, there remain hundreds of thousands of conservative parents who don’t consider rock a suitable family activity, and who fear giving their kids the bug for it. The children of Boyd Dupree are not millionaires, but they’ve all led very interesting lives, and that wouldn’t have happened without his encouragement. I think Boyd Dupree realized that there’s nothing particularly cool anymore about flipping off your beleaguered parents — not when there’s more than enough awfulness in modern society to mount a rebellion against. A family band isn’t any more square than a group of reprobates from the corner bar, and since the Rock n’ Roll Hi-Fives are plenty good already, this is an adventure in filial affection that Evren and Eilee are guaranteed never to be embarrassed by. I dunno if they’re going to stick with the rock or wander off, and I doubt Joe or Gloree do, either. But for the time being, the second generation of talented Centenos is making noise in New Jersey, and we’re better for it.

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