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.