Review Summary: 'On Trial' features what is best about the (Young) Pioneers and distils it into a quick hit of righteous folk-punk
The (Young) Pioneers were a great band, no doubt. Formed from the ashes of the band Born Against, the founding members of Adam Nathanson (guitar and vocals) and Brooks Headley (drums) concocted a blend of leftist political leanings, troubadour folk music, and punk rock righteousness to produce an original sound that can hardly be bettered, let alone imitated. Perhaps this is where the (Young) Pioneers strengths lay; they sound like nobody except themselves and their sound sends a shiver up your spine despite the fact that Nathanson can barely carry a tune and instead hides the vocals under layers of thick distortion. I'll admit that I wasn't there to see this low-profile band playing gigs when they were active in the nineties, but good music stands the test of time.
On Trial was the (Young) Pioneers fifth release, in 1996. It was originally a five-track 7" but was expanded to nine songs that span 14 minutes for its CD release. One of these added tracks, the sublime 'We Ain't Even Married', had also featured on the Crimewave EP and was later included on the full-length 'Free The (Young) Pioneers Now!'. However, this does not stop 'We Ain't Even Married' being the heartfelt standout on the EP. Coming in at just over a minute a laden with wailing blues harmonicas, Nathanson's lyrics finally become discernible enough through the speakers to make out a tale of a guy or girl politicising their sweetheart, telling them how "secrets are shared by the bastards of old". The Pioneers are perhaps a little lyrically obvious at times but they get their point across with sheer passion instead, their last-throw-of-the-dice approach giving an impression of the do or die attitude that lurks beneath some of their more sloganeering lyrics - evidence if wanted of how much they mean what they are saying.
However, even if the outstanding 'We Ain't Even Married' becomes lyrically legible after a few plays, there are songs here that will make you give thanks to the god of lyric sheets. This is particularly true of (A the Time of the) Cease Fire, a righteous tune which instrumentally sounds like a war being fought exclusively with napalm but is pretty vocally impaired. One check of the lyrics shows a mature and well-written story of two lovers standing in the middle of the Vietnam War, hearing the violence going off all around them. Vietnam may represent problems a couple encounter during their relationship and a need to rely on each other to get through, but that might just be what I take out of it. '*** The Labour Pool', with its dirty 50's rock 'n roll riffs, and 'Ghosts of the Lumpen' are also solid tunes, with the latter spinning a sad tale of 'Big John' and his love affair with a drug addict.
There are a few down moments of the CD - most notably semi-instrumental opener 'The Pioneer Worker Pact (PWP)' which wrong-foots you with some nice folk-punk riffing at the start before it drops in a burst of vocal that can only be described as 'off-key noise', which is buried so low in the mix that you can't tell if you meant to listen to the words or just ignore them. 'Warsaw Ghetto' is the other slightly weak song here, but this is perhaps because it is slightly slower and more straightforward by-the-numbers punk rock than the rest. It lyrically works quite well though, describing the scene of the polish ghetto as if by looking through a camera lens. The EP concludes with the one-two punch of 'Lover's On Trial' and 'Paralyzed Veteran', tunes built on a similar riff which flow nicely into one another to conclude the EP.
Overall 'On Trial' features what is best about the (Young) Pioneers and distils it into a quick hit of righteous folk-punk. Some of the songs here are simply masterful and show that the band were starting to hit their stride after four releases that wavered in quality. They carried this momentum into the recording of their best known (and final) record, 'Free The (Young) Pioneers Now!' before disbanding in 1999. On Trial is a great CD to get into the band with, and one of the key purchases of any fans of the band.