The prospect of listening to the new Black Flag record – the first new studio LP from the band since 1986’s “In My Head” – is fraught with static from all sides. If you’re anything like me, you watched, with something between duty and determination, the videos which popped up this summer as…
Monday record review 4/9/2012: “Rio,” by Duran Duran
That Duran Duran was my first favorite band makes sense: their emergence coincided with MTV’s. But it wasn’t just that channel: there was a local station which played nothing but music videos, and another local station which had a video show for an hour a day. Music video, for a time, was unescapable. It’s been well-documented and well-argued elsewhere that no band benefited so thoroughly from music’s shift to a visual medium as immediately as Duran Duran did (just as it’s been argued—though I can’t remember by whom, specifically— that the same shift was responsible for Christopher Cross’s untimely musical demise: he made more sense, unfortunately, as the faceless mastermind behind a flamingoed album cover than he did on television playing his music). MTV was The New Thing when I was eight and nine, and Duran Duran’s sensibilities were perfect for that age: quasi-plotless Indiana Jones-tinged adventures in exotic locales. I was a bit too young for the exotic women in the videos, but I understood that they held an appeal I wasn’t yet privy to.
Of course, I got a bunch of shit for loudly proclaiming them my favorite band to anyone who’d listen. Their ubiquity in girly pop mags like Tiger Beat didn’t help things any. Nor did their New Romantic style: ruffles will never be in, no matter what anyone says. But I soldiered gamely on, through lineup changes and side projects, until I declared Van Halen my favorite band in the eighties in an attempt to ward off predatory bullies in a new school (and this was Van Hagar—I was better off, in retrospect, with ol’ DD). Then punk found me, and it was the Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys and all the rest.
Hold Back the Rain
I think, now, that Duran Duran are unfairly pinned to their singles. The videos remind people of a certain age of a certain time—that era of video ubiquity—and people of other ages of what they think the era was like. I have no idea what 1982 was like in the clubs so maybe things were all New Romantic. I bet, though, that New Romanticism is kinda like Electroclash: a genre that reflexively generated more buzz than substance, with caches of pre-Facebook photographs stuffed neatly under rugs, never to be seen again except ironically. What I’m saying here is that there’s a case to be made that “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” are pure kitsch. Which is a shame, because the album which spawned those tracks remains one of my favorites.
Listening to so many records causes callouses to grow, though sometimes not on the sentimental center of the brain. It’s always a drag when revisiting old stuff that meant a lot and finding it doesn’t hold up. One of the first records I ever owned, the J. Geils Band’s Freeze-Frame, is a perfect example, and one that works well in the context of this specific argument: like Duran Duran, their videos fueled their ubiquity, and point to a very specific mini-epoch for both people who were there and weren’t. Unfortunately, Freeze-Frame doesn’t hold up as an album. It sucks to realize that the only reason I was so smitten with the band was because I had listened to maybe five records to that point, but that’s the brutal reality of time passing.
Beyond Duran Duran being heartthrobs and having amazing videos, their early music manages to effectively meld synth, rock, and disco. Roger Taylor’s drum throne is planted squarely in hi-hat city throughout Rio, sizzling beats as John Taylor flexes his bass throughout. Nowhere on the album is this demonstrated as amazingly as in My Own Way, where his bass runs astound. They’re maybe a bit show-offy, but what makes them work is the fact that everyone is trying to be heard on the record (except maybe for Roger, who, hi-hat aside, always struck me as the most workmanlike member of the band—he was foundational, not flashy). Nick Rhodes harnessed the potential of his synth and keyboards in such a way as to circumvent the inherent tackiness of their potential: his parts, to this day, don’t sound as dated as other bands reliant on the instrument (Depeche Mode, I’m looking at you). Andy Taylor, on guitar, always had a knack for big, glam / arena riffage, opening up the undercarriage for nuance and subtlety, hollering without bogarting. And singer Simon LeBon, of course, always sounded good, the cocksure safari captain, somehow simultaneously macho and sensitive.
My Own Way
It’s not all just about pulsing disco beats and danceable bombast, as it is in “My Own Way” and “Hold Back the Rain.” Singles aside, there’s the slow-dance element of Rio, which manifests in synth balladry like “Lonely In Your Nightmare,” “Save a Prayer” (the one song on the record I think is heavy-handed and clunky, requisite shimmering video aside) and especially “The Chauffeur,” a song as impenetrable now as it was thirty (jeez—thirty!) years ago, with its vague lyrics and anthemically melancholy keys line (to say nothing of the odd background “found” studio noises, later prominently reprised by, among others, Talk Talk and Rodan).
Because of all the associations—the radio / video hits, the reprehensible fashion choices, the eighties in general—I understand that listening to “Rio” objectively can be very difficult. It’s the album, aside from the aforementioned J. Geils slab, that I’ve owned the longest. It’s the one I’ve kept returning to. Recent remasterings have brought John’s lines to the fore—the man rivals only Mike Watt on my list of preferred bassists—and have added a depth grounded in hindsight to Nick’s keys. Seriously, get over the associations—most of ‘em are probably bogus anyway. The album stands as a monument to an era: one not of pirate shirts and blow, but of the level playing field of punk / post=punk allowing bands to take—and, in this case, succeed in—chances.
Monday record review 3/5/2012: 1.6 Band’s self-titled LP
The most intense part of any moving day is inevitably couch-related: this familiar object, one whose multiple functions revolve almost solely around relaxation, becomes a monument to futility as its arms and feet transform into hindrances as a bunch of poor, exhausted saps try in vain to stuff the damn thing up (at least) one flight of stairs, muscles straining under both weight and unnatural angles. Then the process is forgotten until the next move. But afterwards, the requisite pizza and beer are awesome because the calories have been earned lugging and hefting and haggling and positioning—carbs be damned!
Legacies are like that: ultimately rewarding, but heavy, and largely divorced from process. Rather than concentrating on the process, how the current destination was reached, there’s a tendency to sit still, ignoring the twists and turns inherent in any stylistic trajectory.
1.6 Band doesn’t have a huge legacy—this LP, a few singles (including the excellent “The Checkered Past of All Things Present,” released in tandem with some recent shows [all of which I missed, dammit!]) —but what they left is indicative of this love of process and positioning. The music they play is instantly identifiable as hardcore punk, but that identification carries with it some stagnant signifiers: it’s a genre largely more interested in the post-move relaxation than getting the couch up the stairs. The tropes can be heavy and obvious.
What 1.6 Band does on their lone LP is take the hardcore signifiers and twist them in such a manner than their music, though familiar, becomes entirely their own. The most “traditional” member of the band is Kevin Egan, whose shouts throughout are strong and sustained. His lyrics, though, are much more sparse / way less didactic than the average Youth. Crew offering, leaving listeners enough space to plug in their own concerns over the provided framework. It’s impossible to discern what he’s talking about, specifically, when he sings, in “Plastic Bags” “who planted the seed? / inside my brain? / It’s gonna take a lifetime / I didn’t have to feel all this pain,” but that’s the point—specificity dictates, and dictation dates. Egan’s lyrics, because of their open-endedness, manage to evolve over time, maintaining relevance through their open-endedness.
There’s a subsect of folks who don’t listen to heavy music for the lyrics, granted. Luckily, everyone in the band is great musically. There isn’t a simple way to explain the band’s music because there’s no one blueprint that they follow. Guitarist Mike Yanicelli often leads with atonal stutters and bends, hiccups full of purposefully placed wrong notes, shrill harmonics. On “Threads,” his quick three-note progression sounds almost metal in delivery before yielding to a more traditional power-chord chorus before the bridge slows and groans under its own weight. Meanwhile, virtuoso drummer Vin Novara (who later played with some ex-Hoover dudes in the underappreciated Crownhate Ruin) puts on a clinic of 32nd notes, fills and rolls which expertly spackle the space left by bass player Lance Jaeger, whose gymnastic playing sometimes drives the song forward and sometimes adds color. Again, there’s no set pattern: at the onset, “Keeping Me From Killing You” is Jaeger’s bass’s show, just as “Threads” was Yanicelli’s. But songs like these, in which one guy seems to be driving, there are shifts—no bogarts here!—and spaces for argument.
The songs are largely in four or eight, but are sufficiently mathy to tilt heads in the pit and, after a few listens, induce new rhythms. In other words, the 1.6 Band wants listeners to be aware of the twists and turns in their heaviness before settling into them. In other words, get ready to do some work before you eat your pizza.
Monday record review 2/20/2012: “Moustache Eye Patch” by Great Western Plain
It used to be that part of the apprenticeship process—whether it was writing, painting, or playing music—was plain aping: finding something you liked, then trying, often vainly, to reproduce it as accurately as possible. Ninety-nine percent of what emerged, of course, was complete shit—that’s why they call it process—and then on to the next influence.
There are several artists that have gone a great way towards ruining this practice: Bukowski and Pavement spring immediately to mind. There’s plenty to ape in both cases, but what gets lost is the discipline. It sounds odd, I know, but bear with me: Bukowski was a guy who got bombed every night, who blacked out and cranked through fifteen poems he wouldn’t remember writing the next morning every day for forty years. The ones that we read are a tiny slice of what he produced: of the crap he produced, to play percentages / be brutally honest. And Pavement made legions of notebook-slinging, Pynchon-reading kids think that it was easy to fart out nonsequitors genius in their disjointedness, missing the point that the band worked hard throughout. Look to Gary Young’s dismissal, if nothing else: if they were really as slack as the press spun ‘em, they would not have kicked out a guy who lived in a tree and did acid every day for a goddamn year, dig? The problem was that the imitators, in both cases, swiped the poses without reflecting on the process or substance.
I know the members of Great Western Plain. They understand it ain’t worth a hill of beans if there’s no substance underneath. That’s why they have intensely studied the idioms which inform their own listening choices, managing to capture the golden one percent the apprenticeship process begets as their tastes and interests shift. They work, dammit, pounding away at ideas as they come without worrying about a “core audience” or an image or a brand or how to most effectively utilize their Twitter feed /Facebook / whatever to harness the most listeners or any of that non-music bullshit that music has devolved into. And as much as the Internet has made the way we listen to and record music more immediate, the band simply cannot keep up with its steady string of evolving ideas. By the time you see them live, they’re likely to be playing a new batch of stuff. Hüsker Dü was famous for this sort of incessant progression in the ‘80s; so wasBlack Flag. Great Western Plain’s perpetual musical curiosity and intense vetting process make their live sets exciting: get familiar with a record and you can hear what comes next right away. For Great Western Plain, the future is now.
Moustache Eye Patch, their sophomore effort, picks up where 2011’s Noise left off. “Intricate Textures,” the album’s debut track (and first single), acts as a harbinger of what’s to come: a blast of feedback-drenched distorto drone followed by acoustic strumming. Throughout the album, the band walks easily between both extremes, seamlessly mixing and matching bits and pieces from their ever-increasing quiver of tricks with ease. “A Guthrie Tune” would’ve been at home with the best of melodic indie rock circa: mid-‘90s—think Superchunk, Versus, Helium—with rhythmic propulsion driving pure infectious pop chords. “Greenwich” finds the band pushing boundaries, with bassist Mike Powers affecting a drawl over a heavy pop that fragments and rearranges itself into a more jagged and discordant dialect, à la Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 or Polvo. Powers is also at the helm for “Photosynthesis,” in which the band’s patois shifts heavily to Massachusetts as chords dissolve into shards that would make Mission of Burma proud, and his drawl shifts to a Mascisian slur.
Great Western Plain is just as adept at rumination as they are at pogoing. “Three Four,” with guitarist Tim Berrigan on vocal duties, takes a wistful, mournful verse and drenches it in echo and treble before erupting into sheets of feedback so adroit at amplifying both—the wist and the mourn—that the song becomes a puzzle whose unraveling happily bears repeated listens. All the while, Tony Bitetti drums away with power and precision, riding what sounds to be about eight cymbals with as many arms. He’s no slouch at vocals, either: on “Elian Gonzalez” he croons an ode to the onetime Cuban child refugee as he generals the band through an offtime bridge with characteristic ease.
Of course, the band, despite the release of Moustache Eye Patch, is already beyond the album musically. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t check it out, though. Quite the contrary: Great Western Plain’s blueprint of their immediate past becomes a document of how far and fast they travel from record to record—sometimes from show to show. Their ceaseless apprenticeships at a variety of musical altars, musical chops and willingness to take chances in the name of self-betterment, all with a sense of humor, make them a crucial act, both live and on record. My favorite album of 2012 thus far.