Sunday, November 16, 2008
Blake Schwartzenbach (Jawbreaker) and Aaron Cometbus (Crimpshrine) have teamed up with someone who's on the television show The L Word who also plays bass and have determined that now is a good time to play melodic punk again. I concur.
(Photo from the Brooklyn DIY blog. Thanks!)
The project is called "Thorns of Life," after Percy Shelley (about whom Schwartzenbach is presently writing a doctoral dissertation). This appeals to me especially because I had a band named after a poem once too (though Irving Layton, who I think is cooler than Shelley, though not because he was a better person, or even a better poet). Should I hold my breath for them to set "Ozymanduias" to a pop-punk song (like we did to the poem of Layton's we named ourselves after)? Or should I just try and figure out how to get them to stop playing house shows in Brooklyn and instead come and play a house show in Montreal? Standing offer, Thorns of Life: get in touch and I'll put on the best show in Canada in someone's loft, basement, or whatever. No bars, no music industry, nothing: just sweaty people crammed into a small space, having a wonderful time. Seriously: this is your town for the taking.
I'm glad I didn't grow out of pop-punk.
Saturday, August 30, 2008
Friday, August 01, 2008
Song appreciation: Hazel Dickens's "Won't You Come and Sing For Me?" by Jim and Jennie & the Pinetops, 1999
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
"True, True, True" by Ken Parker, circa late '60s. I have no idea who the woman pictured on this video is, other than that she is not Ken Parker.
I found this song on a compilation years ago and had it on a favourite spirit-lifting collection of ska, reggae, and rocksteady tracks that I employed many a grim November, but that went missing a while back. Of all the music on it, this was the track I missed the most, and I'm glad to be listening to it again.
Saturday, July 05, 2008
I made a pot of stovetop espresso, drank it sitting on the shade-warm fire escape, then rode my bicycle down St Urbain to downtown, where I was working in a video store on Ste Catherine West. By the time I'd ridden ten minutes there, I was slathered in sweat that was soaking its way down from the collar of my shirt. It was overcast, but the sun raged behind the clouds like a blind pimple. I opened the door to the store, took my first sips of air-conditioned air and breathed deeply, feeling the air cool my mouth and nose and lungs.
Anthony was behind the counter, checking in returns and looking haggard. I asked how he was and he groaned that he was hungover. He'd chosen a poor day for that. We processed the returns, shelved them, and put the tags away, before I went across the street to fetch us coffee and croissants. Then we sat at down by the cash. It was 10:30 at the store was quiet; Anthony folded his arms on the counter and rested his head on them. I watched the steam wandering up out of my styrofoam coffee cup, the hot scene of Ste Catherine Street in the window behind me, and reflected that the steam was probably as hot as it was outside. People were moving past in various states of dress and comfortable undress, sweating and self-conscious with the heat. Inside the air was cool and still. I put my head down on the counter too. Nobody came in for a long time and Anthony and I just stayed the way we were, celebrating stillness, both so glad to have a reason to spend eight hours in air-conditioned comfort before having to slink home to stifling apartments.
Somewhere during that chronology, Anthony had put on this Ali Farka Touré album. The quieter we got, the less we moved, the more it insinuated its stillness upon us, gently nodding at us as we relaxed more, soothing us by putting into music the ease and calm we felt in that moment.
Ever since then, this album makes me still, calm, and cool. Tonight, sitting with the cat between the window breeze and the gently ticking ceiling fan, I can't think of a better sound for the end of a sunny Saturday in June.
Wednesday, July 02, 2008
It's been a crazy couple of months. I'm sorry for the long period without an update. I've had a bit of a rough spring and early summer, but things are looking up, for real. No time to expand on that, but I want to know what I've been crazy about the last little while:
The Kids s/t 1st LP (apparently they'll be playing here in October?!). Perfect rock and roll.
The first Clash album, this time the US release with the ungodly beautiful single-version of "White Riot" and the masterful "(White Man) in the Hammersmith Palais." A perennial favourite, with all the energy and rebellious joy of summer held within it.
John Fahey's Legend of Blind Joe Death, a gentle and soulful folk album that's carried me through some rough times of late.
Oh wow, there's a bunch more but I'm late for work. My apologies for such a rushed post. This is just to say that I'm here, I'm thriving, I've got good music to keep me company, and I hope you're doing well too.
Friday, April 25, 2008
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Second albums are traditionally risky for precisely this reason: many great bands record debuts with one idea in mind (on Love Undone, the idea is clearly to have a serious good time), but having succeeded at that, they discover they don’t have a consistent notion of where to go next. Maybe they’ve spent years honing their style and songbook into what they record for their first album, only to succumb to pressure for a quick follow up; sometimes it’s only that, having accomplished what they first agreed to set out to do, band members discover that their secondary sets of ambitions do not interlock as well as whatever singular drive got them over the hurdle of the first album.
Luckily, the Deadly Snakes have enough talent and creativity to avoid letting those tensions ruin their second record, but they’re not so unified in vision as to escape internal artistic conflict entirely unscathed. What marks I’m Not Your Soldier more than anything else is the three-way tension between songs fronted by Andre Ethier, those by organist Max “Age of Danger” McCabe-Lokos, and those by producer and new member Greg “Obvlivian” Cartright.
I’m Not Your Soldier features the introduction of McCabe-Lokos, who co-wrote two tracks on Love Undone, to lead-singing with “Pirate Cowboy,” easily the most fun the album (and, I think, the band) ever gets. That track blends Toronto-pride regionalism with gay-party-pirate iconography (smartly summed up in the line, “I was born in Parkdale, but my heart is in Penzance”) into a guaranteed singalong even before you factor in its musical merit—a swinging, percussive mix of all the Snakes at their best, with ample bluesy guitar and harmonica, thundering drums, and blaring good-time horns. McCabe-Lokos also sings a verse of “Talkin’ Down” (one of the album’s lesser tracks) and significant call-and-response parts of the swaggering “I Can Take It.”
The addition of a single new voice to the front of the band might have been manageable without conflict of sound or direction, but the record runs into trouble by also introducing Greg Cartright as a member, singing four songs of his own (which several band members reported he brought fully-formed to the recording session, unlike the rest of the band’s songs that were generally arranged by several or all members together). Cartright’s songs are by no measure poor—they’re solid and powerful enough, but there’s something about them that sounds out of alignment on the record. Perhaps it’s simply that they sound, in mood and tempo and arrangement, like they belong on an Oblivians album—supporting the implication in claims by Snakes members that Cartright didn’t allow his songs to take shape in the usual Snakes manner. In particular, the use of horns on the Cartright-fronted songs seems inefficient, suggesting they were arranged after the fact for less than maximum effect.
I’ve been an Oblivians fan for years and still think that Popular Favourites is a masterpiece of a rock and roll record, but here, for some reason, the Oblivians sound doesn’t fit. Cartright’s seething-nutjob delivery, which worked to the Oblivians' advantage on great tracks like "I'm Not A Sicko, There's A Plate In My Head," is out of place in the careful balance of the Snakes' voices and instruments. Cartright sounds decidedly older, even though he was only a few years in age above most of the Snakes, and next to youthful party jams like “Pirate Cowboy” and young-man’s-angst like “Twice As Dead,” that quality is ill fitting. It shouldn’t be—Andre Ethier certainly allows Cartright’s style to influence his delivery on several tracks, including the latter and “Graveyard Shake,” the album’s opening stomp and a strong contender for its best track. But a careful listening to I’m Not Your Soldier Anymore reveals that most of its weaker tracks (“Talkin’ Down” excepted) are Greg Cartright’s numbers, none of which are even bad—they just don’t work here.
By comparison, there’s pleasant cohesion among the tracks that Andre Ethier fronts. “Early Bird” shows early direction towards the even greater influence of soul arrangement that would become dominant in the band’s next effort, the majestic Ode To Joy. As a duet between Ethier and McCabe-Lokos, the attitudinal “I Can Take It” is perfect, a pleasant omen of creative catalysis to come, accentuated by McCabe-Lokos’s panting organ solo. The down tempo “I Don’t Mind” is a more obvious nod to the Sticky Fingers/Exile-era Rolling Stones than the slighter Stones references sprinkled throughout Love Undone. It anticipates the delightfully loose “Trigger,” an even slower Stones homage that holds more confidently together than Love Undone’s teetering slow numbers, though I can’t make up my mind if that confidence has more charm than the wobbly uncertainty of, say, “Sweet Sixteen” or “Cotton Stained Red” on that album.
I'm Not Your Soldier Anymore closes with the high-test honky-tonk of “Say Hello,” which starts quiet and still and builds gradually into a surprisingly electrifying climax that ably matches the wild power of Love Undone’s best numbers. Ethier wails over the din of the band sweating hard and crashing about about behind Andrew Gunn’s hammering drums. Despite its unfortunate fade-out, “Say Hello” is the perfect closure to an album that at times seems too hesitant, and its controlled mayhem reassures the listener of the Snakes’ developing direction toward a more poised combination of careful R&B-arrangement and joyful tent-revival frenzy.
More than anything, this enjoyable but imperfect album is a document of conflicting forces—both powerful and talented—at work in deciding the Deadly Snakes’ direction. Obviously the creative tangle that binds this album up comes from the presence of Greg Cartright—his songs move in one direction while those sung by Ethier and McCabe-Lokos move in two (albeit negotiable) others; his songs are his own while the others are the combined product of the band. Talented and composed as he is, Cartright just doesn’t work here—thus his disappearance from the Snakes (and from their album production), making way for the band to begin work on what would become their greatest album, Ode To Joy.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Rock and roll had gotten boring by 1999, both in the popular consciousness and in the underground. With the chart breakthroughs of the Strokes, the White Stripes, and the Hives still a few years off, mainstream music was dominated by rap-metal and lifeless pop rock. Underground music, meanwhile, had tried to embrace rock and roll in the wake of a few exciting garage-punk bands like the New Bomb Turks, the Oblivians, and the Spaceshits, but had been quick to accept attitude and posture in the place of solid records or raging live shows. Magazines like Hit List seemed willing to celebrate, without an honest and critical assessment, any tattoo-spackled group that announced it was the New York Dolls incarnate, which resulted in a flood of watery also-rans saturating the touring circuit, and left adrift the handful of electrifying bands still in existence.
So I was wary of the first few, then the first bunch, then the multitude of positive reviews I heard of Love Undone by the Deadly Snakes. It had gotten hard to trust any recommendation of a new rock and roll band, and I had accumulated, on bad advice, enough unlistenable records decorated with devils, hot rods, and pin-up girls to be suspicious of hype. Thus, when I finally gave in and picked up Love Undone a while later, I expected only mediocrity, and was totally flattened by what I heard.
Nearly ten years on, Love Undone remains a fresh and exciting record, but on its release it was as important as it was great. In 1999, Love Undone was a youthful exclamation in a room full of weary voices, and a breath of life into the still corpse of a genre many had given up for dead. More than anything it was a lot of fun. While their tired garage-rock peers aped the Stooges and the MC5 because that’s where the money was, the Deadly Snakes played rock and roll because it felt good, and listening to their record you consequently feel good too.
Love Undone’s liner notes state it plainly: the album, they say, “is a rally call to abandon irony and play from your soul – to be young and to be bold,” and that captures perfectly the album’s point of view. This record does not want you to dress in ugly clothes and coolly bob your head to shitty music as a way of implying you have style and like to rock and roll. Instead, this record wants you, as whoever you are, to play it loud and fly off the handle dancing to it. You’re supposed to bump into people, knock things over, break stuff, get someone’s drink down your shirt, and wear it all with a grin—because it sounds that good.
From the cacophony of drums and cymbals, guitar, and smashed sloppy piano that begins “Bone Dry,” the album’s brazen two-chord opener, to the sudden arrival of a horn section actually used to punctuate and underline as horns should be, Love Undone begins clearly in pursuit of a good time. But it’s the second song, the album’s title track, that serves as the record’s statement of purpose, the centre to which each song will return, in different ways and from different angles. The torrent of guitar, harmonica, and drums that begins “Love Undone” blasts the listener like a firehouse of sound before tumbling into verses defined by a drum line of loosely rocking rolls, around which the guitar and harmonica and saxophone circle each other, occasionally colliding in feedback. You could call this garage-rock and in a sense you’d be right, but if it sounds like The Sonics or the Count Five at their best, it’s because the Snakes are, like their garage forbears, snotty white kids who want to play wild blues and soul, and are doing what they can to serve that purpose with what they have. Love Undone is respectful only to its R&B influences, and everyone else can go to hell.
The sound of Love Undone is hard to explain—most people would call it a lo-fi album, which it is, but not in the sense that it’s as poorly or lackadaisically played as many “lo-fi” records. It sounds, rather, like it was recorded on ancient equipment that it totally overwhelmed, but the extent to which it surpasses its recording technology is also a measure of exhilaration. Something about the tinny, grimy recording demands that you turn it up— maybe, at first, because you’re trying to hear it better— but the louder it gets, the more you feel like knocking over tables. Love Undone, from start to finish, is as much an enabler as it is an album —it quickly becomes a rowdy friend who inspires you to behave just as badly as he does.
Like all subsequent Snakes records, Love Undone features no instrument effects and a minimum of production interference. It was recorded almost entirely live. The band, as I understand it, sought to capture as plainly as possible what they sounded like playing their instruments together, and did nothing to varnish any part of that. Their “we-are-what-we-are” stance is reflected in the album’s cover photo, a hideous portrait of the band looking gawky and unhealthy, their mouths hanging oafishly open, which seems to suggest they were too busy playing music to pose for a retake. Many people, myself included, may find this approach to be achingly sincere, but it is, in equal measure, also incredibly cocky (from a band already cocky enough to open their debut album with a two-chord song). It passes unspoken judgment on the entirety of the rest of the music industry by suggesting that careful record production is the refuge of those who can’t play well enough to sell their product straight.
Raucous and unadulterated, this record twitches with energy. Every member of the band plays his instrument as though he’s trying to damage it, and Andre “St Clair” Ethier wails and howls every lyric. The quiet songs (the sobering-up “Sweet Sixteen” and the achingly ominous “Cotton Stained Red”) are loud, so the loud songs are even louder, rollicking at least, and frenzied mayhem at their best. Perhaps surprisingly, the album’s best number is a riotous reworking of the spiritual “Down By The Riverside” into “Shake By The Riverside,” a call and response dance number driven by handclaps, restless organ, and a positively throbbing rhythm section, over which the horns and fierce guitar clamour into prominence. It takes significant effort to sit still when this song is playing, and more than any of the many high points on Love Undone, “Shake By The Riverside” fulfils D. Boon’s dictum that a record be a flyer for the band’s live show. It’s hard, listening to music this hot and good, not to want to be at the front of a room full of friends losing their minds together while the band goes crazy before you.
That’s what this album is about, after all. As the liner notes explain, the 12 songs that compose Love Undone “reflect the loyalties, grudges, wild nights, and heartbreaks of six longtime friends.” It’s natural to listen to this album and think of your own friends, because it’s good time music, and who would you rather have beside you for the good times? The Deadly Snakes had one another, and as a result, we get an uncommonly fine album as a record of their friendship. Thank god.
Friday, April 04, 2008
Tuesday, April 01, 2008
D. Boon would have been 50 years old today. His work, his energy, and his integrity are still an almost daily inspiration to me. Happy birthday, big guy. There are still a lot of folks who miss you something fierce.
I nodded, then said, "Wait a second. Did you just call Pleased to Meet Me possibly one of the best Replacements records? Really? What about Let It Be? I thought that was everybody's favourite."
"Well sure," he said. "But Pleased to Meet Me's got 'Alex Chilton' on it! That's one of their prettiest songs."
I said, "Okay, I guess. I shouldn't talk-- I always appreciated them playing hardcore a lot more."
"Stink, you mean?" John said.
"Well yeah, but more so Sorry Ma... That's the one record of theirs that I feel like I understand perfectly."
"Huh," John said.
"Yeah, huh," I agreed.
"You gotta admit that 'Alex Chilton' is a real pretty song," he said.
"Sure," I said. "Yeah, of course. I even like All Shook Down.
John said, "Oh yeah! There are some nice songs on that, too."
Truth is, of course, I got All Shook Down first, when I was 15, then got Pleased To Meet Me and Don't Tell A Soul, wondering more and more why people were so crazy about the 'Mats. It was good, sure, but at that point in my life I wanted music that went really, really fast, and anything less sounded like music for old people, the sort of thing I needed to push away with all force. A couple of years later, when I got Stink and Sorry Ma, I finally felt I was hearing music I could relate to and wondered how a band that fiery ended up playing such slow, introspective music.
Now that I am, more or less, old people, I see the sense in it a lot more, but there's a fundamental spasm of rejection that I still get listening to those records born of my initial relationship to them at age 15. It's not at all that I'm unwilling to listen to gentler, slower music, or that I'm opposed to introspection, but rather that I see the things I accept as indicative of something I was afraid, years ago, of becoming, and wonder which part of me, if any, was right.
Larry Livermore (an across-the-board detractor of the Replacements, if I remember correctly), in his usual deliberately reactionary manner, nails some form of this phenomenon in a recent blog post when he says, I've come to notice that one of the surest predictors of records I don't want to listen to, movies I don't want to see, etc., is its popularity with the beard and/or chin-stroking 20-something "artistic" crowd. You know the type, no doubt: the ones who shortly after leaving their teens begin denouncing the catchy, fun pop-punk music they used to love as "puerile" and "simplistic," replacing it with "more complex" varieties, the more obscure, atonal and unlikely to become popular, the better.
There's a lot more truth in this than I think a lot of people would like to admit-- we like things, as generations of cultural critics have been screaming for ages, as much for what we feel they say about us as for what they are, objectively. Thus, there must be some part of me that, in spite of having sensibly abandoned having a mohawk nearly a decade ago, of crossing the threshold of 30 as a college teacher in the same city I've lived in for the past 11 years, still wants to define myself by whatever I heard in punk rock at the age of 15. This is more or less obvious most of the time, but I puzzle frequently over the reasons behind it. Do I enjoy the music I do because I want to forestall the inevitable, or do I enjoy it anachronistically and to my own detriment somehow? Sure, I feel absurd and anomalous sometimes listening to, say, Crimpshrine or Sicko or Hickey or Witches With Dicks, but only really because I know that (as a friend who sold me Crimshrine's Duct Tape Soup ten years ago told me) "I really should have grown out of this stuff by now" (the inspiration, after all, for the blog title). In the moment, my relationship with the music, the exhilaration of its energy and the the ease of its melody, feels the same as it always has been, save perhaps for an added thrill of defiance in enjoying what I'm clear I'm supposed to be ashamed of.
But again, do I only enjoy this as I do because it sets me apart from my college-teaching colleagues who make car and mortgage payments and have mostly abandoned their literary aspirations, as though the difficult pride in holding onto the thrills of youth can help assuage the nearly incessant stress of the life I've insisted upon?
Generally, when I encounter this question, I put a record on and eventually forget about it, as I'm going to do now.
Saturday, March 29, 2008
Over the decade-plus since its founding by my CEGEP colleague Erin MacLeod, the majority of Venus members and hosts have been friends of mine, or have become friends as a result of their working with Ang. As a result, once a year or year and a half, I get asked to do a last-minute fill-in on the show when it turns out that everyone else has gotten sick. Yes, to answer the half-dozen questions I get (even from other DJs and people at the station) every time this occurs, there's no law against "a dude" doing Venus when the entire crew has been wiped out by, say, the Norwalk virus. Men can also major in women's studies too. Amazing, huh?
Ang was feeling ill on Wednesday night, and I mentioned in passing that I could cover for her if she was a wreck the next morning and for some reason no one else could do it, which seemed an unlikely event. I didn’t think about it again until Ang woke me up the next morning looking bleary and awful and said, “So you can do the show, right?” Thus, Thursday I did Venus and today I'm putting it up for you to listen to. I pulled music for the show in a bit of a hurry, but having not done radio in over a year my set seemed fresh enough to me. You can download the show in two parts, for as long as Sendspace keeps the links open, and later on in a lower bitrate off of the CKUT-FM station archives (at www.ckut.ca).
Part one (Skip ahead to 2:10, unless you want to listen to the tail end of the previous show about freeing Palestine)
Part two (cuts off amid my rundown of last tracks, which you can read below)
Lullabye Arkestra - "Y'make Me Shake"
Mekons - "Club Mekon"
One Reason – “The End Never Mattered”
Mika Miko – “Wild Bore”
Conversions (ex-Crucial Unit! Drumming by Chris Strunk) – “Give Up”
Loli & the Chones – “Pendejo”
Nymphets – “Borstal Breakout”
Brutal Knights – “Living By Yourself”
The Trashwomen – “Date’s On Me”
Shitbirds (early April March) – “Oh Joy!”
Thee Headcoatees – “Davey Crockett”
Doers – “Wicked World”
Gories – “Feral”
The Frumpies (ex-Bikini Kill) – “Wrong Way Round”
The Bell-Rays – “Changing Color”
The Cramps – “Human Fly”
The Kills – “Cheap and Cheerful”
Discount – “Accident Waiting to Happen”
Discount – “Pocket Bomb”
Epoxies – “We’re So Small”
Apples in Stereo – “Mystery”
Superchunk – “Detroit Has a Skyline”
Audrey Ryan – “Dishes and Pills” **(cuts off-- see note)
Millie Croche – “Careful With Guys”
Veda Hille – “This Spring”
Patti Smith – “Gloria”
Electrelane – “To The East”
Gravy Train!!! – “Hella Nervous”
The Gossip – “Red Hott”
Team Dresch – “Freewheel”
Cub – “Go Fish”
The Dagons – “Teeth for Pearls”
Thundrah – “Sinking Ship”
Hrsta – “And We Climb”
Sleater-Kinney – “Jumpers”
** - [I cut this off by accident, but subconsciously perhaps not so, because a publicist on behalf of Ms. Ryan called me directly to ask that I play this and talk about her upcoming show. He namechecked Venus member Catherine, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt and played it on her behalf. I’m very proud that community radio in Canada is DJ-programmed, without interference from music industry people, and I was none too thrilled to have some guy call me up on air to pull on my coat about playing his artist instead of going to the music dept where he’s supposed to (and where they’ll tell him it’s up to DJs to play what they wish). Jerk then called back afterwards just as I was going on the air and said, “So you kind of fumbled that one, huh?” Nice. Catherine called to say hi a little later and I told her about it. She had no idea who the dude was and was none too thrilled.]
Friday, March 21, 2008
I've never liked the Kills-- I saw them at Montreal's Sala Rossa on their first tour in 2003 and found their late arrival to smacked-out garage blues totally unremarkable. They were doing little more than aping the equally tiresome Royal Trux, whose skag-rock usually forgot that Johnny Thunders wrote great songs in addition to being a dashing junkie. I watched unconvinced as Mosshart and Hince (or VV and Hotel, as they'd cringingly rechristened themselves) gambolled about the stage playing rawk gawds, and amping up some role-play routine where they pretended to have a creepy abusive relationship. They primped, attitudinal and devil-may-care, but the substandard garage rock they squeezed out was flat and rehearsed and lacking totally in danger or surprise--hardly worth copping attitude over. It hurt the most, though, because I'd loved Discount, and though prior to the live Kills set I'd found their debut EP uninspired and pretentious, I was convinced that seeing Alison (uh, VV?) on stage again would redeem everything.
The first time I saw Discount was at the old Café Chaos on St Denis, across from the Cartier-Latin theatre, in October of 1999. They played a more-than-sold out show with Born Dead Icons and Fifth Hour Hero, both still in the relatively early stages of their trajectories. Jeff "Ghost Pine" Miller insisted I come, though at the time I was still listening largely to dumb garage punk and looked down on pop-punk for not being, er, genuine enough (an absurd thought from the point of view of garage rock, but I was in my early 20s). Jeff kept telling me it would be worth it, first when he convinced me to meet up with him, then when we got turned away at the door of the sold out show, then at the coffee shop where we waited through the opening bands, and finally before sneaking in with the crowd before the headline set.
We nudged our way to the front through the morass as Discount careened into their first song, and my first impression was that they were fronted by a young girl on a lot of drugs. It took me a few minutes to recognize that the stupourous trance that gripped Mosshart disappeared at the end of each song, when she'd suddenly become a shy girl in her late teens, eyes downcast and chin shrugged into her chest, quietly saying a few words about the band and their tour or thanking people for clapping. Then a new song'd start and she'd be once more gripped with musical fits. It could have been pretentious, were it not simply so weird-- there was nothing cool about her comportment, which suggested equal parts spiritual possession, traumatic shock, and grand-mal seizure. Mosshart looked crazed, her eyes fixing at random on the floor and ceiling and speakers, mouth muttering and contorting and hanging open when she wasn't singing, as she snapped at herself totally out of time with the music, contracting, expanding, shaking uncontrollably and apparently surprising herself. Utterly awkward in the most refreshing way, it appeared to be happening beyond her control, and while there were moments when she looked embarrassed by it, these were always overtaken and distracted by her own performance.
The greatest contrast was, however, her singing-- she sang sweetly, in a young, pure voice, with high melody and yearning earnestness. The band behind this was tight and loud and they played what would probably be called, derisively, pop-punk. It was melodious, and it was punk too-- loud and exhilarating rock and roll that you could shake to, which I was doing, startled by how good the music was and totally focused on the band, hoping as one hopes amidst all great sets that they would never stop playing and that time would instead stop and leave me suspended aloft in the feeling of joy that I felt hearing and watching them play.
It would be a shame to write Discount off as pop-punk the same way one sweeps aside the army of overproduced boy bands begging meal tickets from the extreme-sport-energy-drink demographic. Jawbreaker influence aside, Discount didn't quite sound like anyone else at the time, and if they did it was only because they sounded young. They sounded mainly like themselves, and expressed the emotions and concerns of young people in precisely the manner as punk rock is supposed to. They'd been booked, I recall, by local kids in an anarchist collective venue, and were touring across North America playing shows in houses and basements, bookstores, cafes, bars, whatever, at what might have been a post-internet but pre-file sharing, pre-Myspace height of actually independent music. They were young and they made music about being young for young people. As many problems are inherent in that aside, they did it perfectly and their records today resonate with that youth above all.
Last week in Florida, Ang and I listened to Half Fiction and the second disc of the band's Singles collection, featuring mostly tracks from the later years. Because we were staying less than an hour from Vero Beach, Discount's hometown, it seemed appropriate, but there's something doubly satisfying about complementing the sun and warm salt-seasoned air with youthfully exhuberant songs played hard and and melodic and loud. We gave both albums plenty of play, which I supplemented by listening to the Love, Billy EP of Billy Bragg covers on the beach, and concluded that Discount was still a great band.
But I came to the following conclusion too-- the band was really at its apex when they recorded Half-Fiction. It's the best Discount album-- their debut, Ataxia's Alright Tonight, is good but uncertain juvenalia, and their final album, Crash Diagnostic is ambitious, but occasionally too much so. In the middle, Half-Fiction is the perfect balance. It's achingly well-played, tight, and full of driving momentum, and Mosshart's voice is sweet and plaintive, but more than that she sounds frank. Half-Fiction as an album sounds like someone trying to tell you something about themselves, including the uncomfortable things, but not dwelling on them. At no point does the record sound like it cares or even knows that anyone's listening. Instead, it records a band lost in trying to play as well as they can to say what they want to say about what they feel. No one could sensibly apply Negative Approach's accusation to Half-Fiction-era Discount-- they may not have been for everyone, but they're weren't trying to be something they were not. There's almost an utter lack of posture in this record (particularly when considered in hindsight against The Kills, for whom posturing is central and actual expression sounds almost tertiary), and I'm not entirely sure who to blame for that, except perhaps that the band was young enough to have believed in punk's ethos that it's enough to say what you feel.
By contrast, Crash Diagnostic is the sound of a band aware of how many people are listening, and trying to rise to the demand of that. Interviews prior to the release of that album found Mosshart and other members of the band sensibly pointing out that they didn't want to go on making the same records forever, they wanted to develop, try new things, and grow. These are obviously important and worthy pursuits for musicians, especially musicians finding themselves acclaimed at an early age. Yet from a listener's perspective, too much of Crash Diagnostic is agonizingly self-aware-- it's an album played for an audience, in direct contrast to Half-Fiction which sounds like a band playing only for themselves. They play with post-rock, pay homage to Fugazi and the DC/Dischord sound in general (drummer Bill Nesper now lives in DC and plays in Dischord band Routineers with former Fort Reno promoter Amanda MacKaye), make the music more difficult, challenging, less direct, all things that were considered important in 2000. There are those little 37-second non-songs of noise and feedback and tape loops; there are spaces left silent and great attention to the dynamic between loud and quiet; there are mysterious lyrics that border equally on the poetic and the unintelligible; there's album design borrowed heavily from Fugazi's graphic style. And there's the album's most obvious lapse, Mosshart's affectation in some songs of a quasi-English accent (now a constant, judging from her interviews as member of the Kills), which can be only partly explained away by recalling that she was 17 when the previous album came out and, at 20 when she made Crash Diagnostic, and was still discovering her voice.
Even then, it's not a bad album by any stretch, and its best songs are just great. Those are the moments when it sounds like Discount forgets, briefly, who they're playing for-- and they sound once more like kids expressing themselves through music, instead of an acclaimed band working on more challenging material. As a whole, Crash Diagnostic ends up sounding like a solid entry into a wide field of competitors, whereas with Half-Fiction, Discount was far and away the best band out there playing young songs for young people. I still quite like Crash Diagnostic and listen to it from time to time (each time remarking, "This is so much better than I remember it being"), but not half as often as I play Half-Fiction, which remains a flawless document-in-song of being young.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
The First World War was, after all, a completely new thing, a 4-year non-stop orgy of mass-murder, mass-maiming, and miscellaneous brutality so destructive to the individual psyche that soldiers had to be constantly rotated out of it to keep them from mental collapse. Its continual shelling, gassing, mining, gunfire, and attacks (as well as long stretches of tense boredom) bore utterly no resemblance to anything--even the terrifically brutal things--that had happened before, and it was endured en masse by millions of people, largely men, who returned home to a public that felt it understood what they'd been through because it had read about the heroic exploits of "our Tommies" in propaganda cartoon reports of the war.
Many, like poet Siegfried Sassoon, were justified in arguing that it was nearly impossible to understand the war without having been in it, and others sensibly argued that to attempt to represent the war in words or pictures--even by those who were there-- was necessarily to encourage misunderstanding by placing it in a narrative whereby the public felt they could understand it. Thus, depictions of the war by those who did not see or experience it seem especially suspect. Sure, artists or authors are free to write or draw what the feel they should, but, in the opinion of those who've endured such a particular experience, how are we to trust the creative product of one who represents something of which he or she has not seen?
This is not to say that no one should have an opinion about war who has not experienced it, nor that one should defer ones feelings about war to those who've seen it. It's simply to say that we must understand that war, like so many things in the realm of human experience (eg, forms of violence, illness, pain, discrimination, etc.), may not be fully understood unless one has endured it, and that therefore a description of war by a veteran or civilian who was there--though incapable of approximating or representing the experience-- is probably more trustworthy than one created by an author's imagination.
Likewise, a description of any extreme experience endured by an individual is likely more believable than the same experience described as imagined. For that reason, I'm fascinated by John Darnielle's use of We Shall All Be Healed to tell the story of his addiction to methamphetamine and of the circle of addicts he was a part of. I fancy myself a pretty creative person, but I really can't tell you what the emotions and interactions of a group of people in the third week of a crystal meth bender are like. I just don't have any idea, and I appreciate having a storyteller as careful as Darnielle recall it to the best of his memory.
Darnielle, with his gawky lo-fi folk-rock, is an unlikely narrator of that sort of story, but that judgement betrays my own prejudices. I'm sure anyone from as shitty a family life as Darnielle's is not unlikely to encounter self-medication and addiction-- as he says (in "The Young Thousands"), "The dull pain that you live with isn't getting any duller." I'm as guilty as any other idiot in imagining for a moment that crystal meth addicts are probably trailer-dwelling illiterates, and this album is a deserved slap and continual reminder that addiction welcomes all classes and levels of education.
But that said, Darnielle's nebbish acoustic folk and indie rock nods to "all you tweakers with your hands out" are startling. His voice and music suggests the usual array of harmless "indie" subjects (love, sadness, self-absorption, dissatisfaction with the world, postmodernism), and thus snaps one to attention when he remembers a meth-binge in a Travelodge (in "Palmcorder Yajna," whose chorus foresees the eventual end to this social circle: "the headstones climbed up the hills") or killing in self-defence ("When I worked down at the liquor store, guy with a shotgun came raging through the place / Muscled his way behind the counter, I shot him in the face").
I've been a Mountain Goats fan for a while, thanks to the efforts of my old friend Bobby Lotz to interest me in the band/guy, and at first I was most enamoured of the early ultra-lo-fi records, each beginning with the hum of the boom box on which he recorded them. When Darnielle moved to 4AD and began recording in a studio with (gah!) other musicians, I was wary, but soon fell in love with Tallahassee, the last of the "non-fiction" (?) records. I didn't hear Healed immediately-- I first heard The Sunset Tree, the subsequent album chronicling childhood abuse at the hands of his alcoholic stepfather. Having heard the songs live and lo-fi before hearing the smoothly produced record, it took much longer to interest me, but eventually I grew fascinated with the storytelling and warmed up to the album itself.
At this point, though, Darnielle is like a lot of musicians and writers whose work I've loved long enough that I'm now just interested in them. I will listen to or read everything by, say, Mike Watt, Joan Didion, Thomas Pynchon, Ted Leo, or Primo Levi not because of what they write about, but because I feel that I've developed a relationship with them through their work (and, in some cases, in person) and I just want to enjoy the things they make. This has allowed me to, in some cases, forgive lapses in quality by artists I love and respect.
However, in spite of its smooth production, I was startled by the candour and quality of We Shall All Be Healed. There's an atmosphere of personal apocalypse all through this record, as sensibly one supposes there must be in a circle of people engaged in progressive self-destruction. Little details make the stories on this album resound with elegiac believability-- the contents of one addict's notebook ("free-hand drawings of Lon Cheney, blueprints for geodesic domes, recipes for cake") or the image of "guys in biohazard suits, mud caking on their rubber boots" arriving to (assumedly) dismantle a meth lab (perhaps one that alerted the authorities because, as a previous song mentions, it was "a great big drain on the power grid"? Or do meth labs consume power?). Out of context these might be more arbitrary images in the kind of random cataloguing Darnielle's been guilty of at points in the past, but taken together they suggest a deep and ugly backstory that's only told here through implication.
"In the cold clear light of day down here, everyone's a monster," Darnielle sings (in "Letter From Belgium"), "That's cool with all of us, we've been past the point of help since early April." These songs drip with this self-hatred, whether in the narrator wishing (in "Palmcorder Yajna") that, "If anyone comes into our room while we're asleep, I hope they incinerate everybody in it" or in concluding (in "Slow West Vultures"), "We are sleek and beautiful, we are cursed." The characters in Healed are obviously doomed, "chewing [their] tongues off, waiting for the fever to break," being ordered to "wrap this bandanna around your head, don't let anyone see that you're bleeding." They're paranoid, they engage in obsessive behaviour chronicled here and there throughout the album, and they meet the doom they know is coming. Darnielle relates the addict's fatalism in "The Young Thousands," opening with an image of "suspicious cargo" delivered from arriving boats to waiting addicts before quickly pointing out that, "The things that you've got coming will consume you / There's someone waiting out there in an alley with a chain." And even though "The things that you've got coming will do things that you're afraid to," the allure of getting high is strong as well, with the "pleasure index [rising]," "the warm love of God coursing through us."
The album ends with the deceptively fun number "The Story of the Pigs that Ran Straightaway Into the Water," a deliriously cheerful rejoinder to police sending the narrator to prison with the refrain, "I come from Chino, so all your threats are empty." It's oblivious and high and the right spot to end this record-- it suggests the reason why the narrator is alive to recount it all without beginning the story of detoxing in prison, another story entirely. We Shall All Be Healed is therefore as self-contained as the society it describes, ending before the narrator can come down, before the threat of death and misery that looms throughout the album finally likewise descends upon those who've been tempting it so long.
Monday, March 10, 2008
The first few times I heard G.I.S.M., the instrumentation and arrangement seemed far too metallic and the growled vocals didn't interest me. Stories about G.I.S.M.'s lead singer Sakevi and his comportment during their live performances, however, morbidly piqued my interest. Through various sources I heard that Sakevi was known for not just attacking audiences with fists and mic stands, but apparently graduating to brandishing flares, tear gas, chainsaws, and flamethrowers and chasing crowds with them. I assume he never actually hacked up or set anyone on fire (during a show, at least), but he was also purportedly responsible for piping nauseating gas into clubs where G.I.S.M. was playing, and for mass-poisoning audiences by spiking drinks with some mild toxin. Sakevi explained his motivation this way: "Our mission is to recall the mental tension of the people [...] and it would show as a guerilla band shooting out persistantly the fighting spirit against the collapsing world."
Hearing these rumours years after having heard and dismissed G.I.S.M., I became fascinated with the idea that an apparent sociopath would feel it necessary to form a band to "express" his opinions and feelings. How would someone given to these sorts of behaviours translate his feelings into song? That someone of Sakevi's inclination even had the patience to assemble a band and practice to perfect the art of making music to match his feelings about "the collapsing world" was intriguing on its own. Thus, I tracked down and listened to a copy of Detestation, the band's first full-length album.
While I still don't have much taste for metal or for heavily metallic music, I have developed some sort of feeling for Detestation. I don't really like it, but I respect (or, at least, am frightened by) it. In light of details about Sakevi's performances, as well as his institutionalizations and episodes of random offstage violence, the music becomes a lot more ominous. Elements that seemed absurd on first listen now seem unsettling (the same way behaviour that seems "funny" in an otherwise sensible individual becomes a red warning flag in a person with a history of psychosis), and the music itself seems to personify the mental state of the voice apparently leading it. The lyrics and song titles are in fractured, muddled English, which amplifies the feeling (in an English-speaking listener) of disconnection and breakdown. Sakevi's voice delivers with certainty frightening statements which make only partial sense, whose grey areas exacerbate the sinister implication behind them. That voice, incidentally, creeps from a standard Japanese-hardcore growl to delusional-operatic puppet vocals (for example toward the end of "Nih Nightmare") that are a good deal weirder than just growling.
But the growling is weird enough, especially when it's fanatically celebrating "Death, Agony and Screams" (pronounced "dess-uh, aguhr ee-uh scREEz!"), and the guitar-noodling that follows is likewise uneasy-- dizzy and barely in tune, it doesn't sound any more healthy than the vocals. Taken as a whole, the package of the record sounds truly evil. Unlike so many hardcore acts obsessed with toughness and violence and fighting, there's no test of strength inherent in G.I.S.M. Instead, this is music that sounds unwell, as though it lacks the strength to restrain its desire to poison your water supply or set your house on fire while you're asleep.
The video above seems filmed well after the band's mid-80s heyday, and is just the band performing the song with no apparent threat to the audience. However, I watch it with the same fascination as that with which I listen to the records, marvelling at the people responsible for this captivating and horrifying music.
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
There'll be more writing here soon. In the meantime, behold the greatest rock video ever made:
Friday, January 11, 2008
Among the most obnoxious representatives of early Los Angeles punk in the late 1970s, possible-sociopath Black Randy released only a handful of drolly confrontational records on the legendary Dangerhouse label (which he partly owned) before his death in 1988 from HIV at the age of 36. He's often remembered more as a social antagonist, cruel prankster, drug addict, and prostitute than he is as a musician, but there's glorious and elemental punk rock in his hard-to-find records. Randy's songs are gleeful mockeries of sacred cows, cool people, and social niceties, as well as cheery celebrations of hated figures like Idi Amin and Chairman Mao, but are just as often venemous attacks on the square world and those who live according to its rules. His attitude to the world is best summed up in "Trouble at the Cup," in which he spits, "Schools and factories make me sick / I'd rather stand here and sell my dick" before offhandedly remarking, "I want to shoot a cop / I want to see him die" in the same blasé tone as the rest of his recorded output.
Funky, offensive, and scatophilic, Black Randy backed his bored, atonal vocals with the tight scribble-funk of The Metro Squad (which featured members of the Randoms, the Eyes, and the Dils). Randy drew on funk, soul, and R&B conventions even as he lovingly mocked those styles (as in his covers of "Say It Loud! (I'm Black and I'm Proud!)," sneeringly hijacked to name off and deride figures of punk rock royalty like Dee Dee Ramone and Joe Strummer, and "Theme From Shaft"). His succinct songs are punk less because they're sonically aggressive, fast, or loud, but rather by virtue of their willingness to attack and offend for fun. Black Randy was all attitude, and he sounds like it.
And on a semi-related note, here's a video of The Screamers doing "122 Hours of Fear" in a studio somewhere:
Saturday, January 05, 2008
Milo w/ Lemonheads
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