Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Wire: Pink Flag (1977)


(Harvest)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

What do you think rebellion sounds like? Musically, I mean. Is rebellion a flower-power thing, an anti-war newspaper song, "folkies playing drums" and all that? Is rebellion even something tangible to be primarily associated with adolescent fervor, or are we talking more about just the basic expression of nonconformity? Is rebellion "Revolution 9"? The bold strokes of individualism like when Patti Smith covers "Gloria" and makes it her own on Horses, or when John Lydon goes under the Berlin Wall, or when Poly Styrene snarls in response to the adage that little girls should be seen and not heard -- that's a favored definition. But there's something about Wire's Pink Flag, one of the most unique and strange artifacts of punk rock, that seems deeper, weirder, more devoted. There is a casualness, an almost mechanical deadpan to the repetitive riff "3 Girl Rhumba" and its brash, half-assed insights ("Think of a number, divide it by two / Something is nothing -- nothing is nothing!") that is more than just gleefully primitive and raucous-past-the-distortion-point. Both those aesthetic qualities are valid and significant, of course, but this song is a threat. And it's a threat because, well, it sounds like these boys just don't care how you feel about the results.

They say it themselves in the demonic earworm "Mannequin": "You don't even start to interest me / Not even curiosity / It's not animosity, it's just you don't interest me." The strongest of kiss-offs: apathy (though "My mind is unwilling and your flesh is so weak" will do in a pinch). Ultimately, nearly every other landmark punk album had some degree of audience service in its philosophy. The tip of the iceberg must be Never Mind the Bollocks, essentially such a barely-disguised greatest hits package as to be three steps away from A Collection of Sex Pistols Oldies. Don't even limit yourself to Great Britain. The Ramones, the Clash, the Damned, Blondie, the Saints, and certainly Patti Smith and Television all exorcised their small rebellions in the firmly established context of good old rock & roll. The song structures, for example, in the Saints' "Messin' with the Kid" or virtually any Ramones song are essentially pared-down revisions of ideas wrought by the Stones, the Beach Boys, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry two decades earlier. It isn't that Wire is immune to such pleasures so much as they are interested in brushing away the dross and cutting it all down to its essence even more so than their peers. These songs rush in, make their point and then leave -- with no friendly repetition or carefully orchestrated hooks. If there is a hook, you might hear it once. Then it's gone.

So the band -- consisting of fussy, restless renegades Bruce Gilbert, Graham Lewis, Robert Gotobed and razor-sharp but subtle frontman Colin Newman -- rewrites "Wild Thing" as a sarcastic parody of self-help manuals and feel-good relationship philosophy in "Feeling Called Love." All the big riffage, even a singalong peak, but it's all over in eighty-two seconds. "Champs" even offers handclaps and a certain curious joy. In some alternate universe, "Start to Move" and "It's So Obvious," only one of which even exceeds a minute, might sound like radio hits but they're out the door in a flash. Even for someone who loves Wire's approach here, it's hard to hear the wittily pouty "Fragile" and "Champs" without thinking of what a career this band might have had if they'd further explored their effortless, focused popcraft. Minimalism in this context amounts to a certain gleeful denial of pleasure, but it also renders Pink Flag both an enigma and an addiction -- because its ideas are so numerous and come at such a rapid pace, all quickly discarded, the immediate need is to hear it all again.

Raw as it is, it's also intensely well-recorded. Among the more elaborate constructions here, the instant classic "Ex-Lion Tamer" has, like "Mannequin," a fully fleshed-out structure with a bridge, chorus, backing vocals and a tight rhythm, all peaking with the ultimate in fascistic commands: "Stay glued to your TV set." Throughout the song, the volume level goes up, and up and up, so slowly it's almost unnoticeable, but pronounced enough that the track is deafening by the end. The unsettling slow-burn "Strange" -- the longest track here, and one of only three longer than three minutes -- adds interlocking guitars and a flute, yet its variation upon the nightmare is equally unforgiving given the time to engulf us all.

"Strange" is, by this band's standards, something of an epic concoction. But it's long strictly because it can hold their sinister interest for that long. "Pink Flag" is more of a dramatic, overblown stage piece, meaning apparently to mock the flamboyant extremities of prog rock; even it devolves into a series of broken one-chord rave ups, strikes of drum and guitar like some demented H.P. Lovecraft reversal of the beginning of "A Hard Day's Night" drowned out eventually by the band's screams. This only enhances the worldview of "Field Day for the Sundays," which slags off bourgeois lifestyle, middle class fantasy and the TV set you're glued to in under thirty seconds and two spit-out sentences: "I want to be a field day for the Sundays so they can fuck up my life, embarrass my wife and leave a bad taste striped toothpaste can't remove on Monday morning. I want to be a target for the dailies so they can show pictures of me with a nude on page three, so lacking in taste, touched up near the waist looking as limp as Monday morning." These two extremes of Pink Flag don't run in opposition. They both demonstrate that only the barest elements are necessary for a reformation of rock & roll as a catalyst of astonishing tension, fury and barbaric humor.

Musically, it's one thing -- more implosive than explosive but inspiring of plenty of danceable glee, if clipped and frequently interrupted. But rock & roll never was just rhythm and melody, it's the whole package -- the attitude, expressed less often in a lyric than a snarl. Pink Flag's vaguely apocalyptic, dada-influenced fuck-it-all worldview would seem like an expression of almost deathly nihilism if it did not circumvent any attempt to interpret it so straightforwardly, unimaginatively. It must be said, the lyrics -- many by Newman, many not -- are a delight even at their deathliest, and are at times arrestingly poetic ("If you had a room he'd paint it white / Survives the day, prefers the night"). The inner sleeve reads like the world's strangest advice column or autobiography, all detached philosophy and mathematical oddity. But is the inaudibly shouted "Mr. Suit" -- "Take your fucking money and shove it up your arse... I'm tired of fucking phonies, that's right, I'm tired of you!" -- a satire of lesser punk bands' empty anti-authority ethos? Is it a sincere attack upon capitalism? Is it a mockery of the duplicity of so many of Wire's peers? Unlike the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, the Ramones, and well, basically everyone else, Wire wasn't on a major label; they never shook hands with the Mr. Suits. One thing's for sure: the song is a riot, and a joy -- even Newman is having a blast, you can tell by that cheerful "come on!" he emits after the first verse. But it's also scary, threatening, and that makes it all the more cathartic.

The guttural abandon of most great popular music is key here, but so is a rare sort of imagination; Wire may have rebelled against the same systems -- mostly musical and infrastructural, maybe a few political -- as all other punk rock groups from the first wave, but no one else did it in quite the gleefully oblique way they did. The Pistols could scare you, but Wire could trap you, in a dirge or in the deafening silence when a song just collapses. There's strange beauty in "Reuters" or "Lowdown" for all their cacophony and drone, in the descent into chaos of "Surgeon's Girl" (later revised into even louder chaos on "Too Late" from Chairs Missing) and "Pink Flag," and in the sensation of being found out and exposed on the deservedly legendary, outrageous climax "1 2 X U" -- the inverse of "Field Day for the Sundays." And yet they can also offer "Straight Line," one of the cheeriest punk songs not performed by the Ramones. At the end of it all, punk washes away along with most everything else because Pink Flag is singular, maybe even more than the band Wire itself was. It does something new with rock & roll, something new with the rock album, its structure, the interweaving relationship of the songs to one another and of the songs to the listener. It's one of the definitive LPs, one of the reasons the LP deserved to be created, and better than most of the reasons we probably thought it was created back in 1977.

Monday, September 1, 2014

July albums

Sorry this post is so late. My life intervened pretty annoyingly this summer; read all about it here if you want the decidedly non-fun details. But I did listen to music during all that. Below is about half of what I've been evaluating lately, with the rest to come as soon as I can spare the moments. I've extracted myself pretty much completely from a lot of the established critical voices across the Web because it seems -- as evidenced below -- that what other people are hearing and loving is more than ever wholly divorced from what's connecting with me. The two records that lit up my spring and summer near the bottom of this post have received little attention elsewhere, while between Marissa Nadler and Sun Kil Moon I'm finding it increasingly hard to be persuaded that the Pitchfork establishment isn't just punking everybody. But lord knows there's no less sharp, vibrant music than before. You'll read about some of it here, some shortly after.

Oh, and Amber Morris contributed (semi-unwittingly) to the Real Estate, Beck and Sam the Sham reviews.

Young Fathers
Dead (2014)

(Aticon)

RECOMMENDED * Interesting, atmospherically vibrant debut by this Edinburgh (by way of Liberia, Nigeria and Maryland) alt-hip hop collective, heavy on melody and a broad pallette of influences that calls TV on the Radio and Shabazz Palaces to mind, with more of a cloudy cumulative impression than a lot of specifically striking numbers. The record comes after a few mixtapes I haven't heard but is breezy enough to make a quick impression and is mostly a flexing of innate gifts; check out the sweeping, unexpectedly gorgeous "Low," tense and aggressive "Mmmh Mmmh." It's a bit short and unfocused, but we'll probably be hearing more good stuff out of these blokes.

***

Five Live Yardbirds (1964)
(Columbia)

RECOMMENDED * New to me, this unusual live document is interesting for a few reasons, only one of them being that it's one of maybe two albums in existence that doesn't suffer for Eric Clapton's involvement. The choice to have a live album function as the band's debut is actually something that was considered by George Martin for the Beatles; history's been kind to his decision not to pull such a stunt after checking out the acoustics at the Cavern, but the tactic is an excellent choice for this somewhat less disciplined but equally raucous live act -- captured in the spring of 1964 at the Marquee Club. The Yardbirds would subsequently create considerable magic in the studio, brilliantly combining a fervent pop sensibility with the blues obsession audible here -- a balancing act none of their peers ever quite figured out, except maybe the Animals -- but this is pure rave-up rock & roll, capturing an eager band with unstoppable energy and a great repertoire of cover material. It's sort of a pity that this is a stronger document of a peak-moment British Invasion band than any of the Beatles', Stones' or Kinks' similar recordings from the period.

***

Marissa Nadler
July (2014)

(Sacred Bones)

!! CAUTION !! * Iiiiiiiii'mmmmmmmmmmmmm ggggggggggggggggllllllllaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaadddddd yyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyoooooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiikkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiittttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt

***

Bo Diddley
20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection (1955-62)

(MCA)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * I generally frown on these homogenized greatest hits sets that were put out -- along with similar variants from other labels -- in the early part of the last decade with titles like Icons and Essentials and such, but this is the best (and best-sounding) introduction I'm aware of to one of the crucial architects of rock & roll. A big part of what makes it so much more immediately engaging than the just-as-worthy Chess Box, despite some unfortunate omissions, is that it never stops being fun. The all-time classics "Bo Diddley," "Who Do You Love" (Diddley's strongest piece of proto-hip hop along with the hit "Say Man") and "Road Runner" keep the beat going all night across a sweltering dance floor even now, while "I'm a Man" and "Diddley Daddy" reveal Diddley's hard blues roots and "Crackin' Up" shows off his pouting vulnerability. But best of all, perhaps, is "Mona," proving there's no barrier between filthy primal rock & roll and burning, yearning romance.

***

Angel Olsen
Burn Your Fire for No Witness
(2014)

(Jagjaguwar)

Impassioned in the garage, restrained and dull in the opera house.

***

Ashford & Simpson
Best Of (1973-90)

(Capitol)

RECOMMENDED * Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson did their best work as composers for other artists, most significantly Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, but they also recorded some zippy singles about their own marital bliss -- they've got the passion if not the voices to communicate desire, passion and yeah, solidity. This is one winning and agreeable compilation, and breaks a sweat; the songs are almost invariably about commitment -- the ups and downs, highs and lows. Mostly ups and highs. But then, these are singles. Woefully missed is the cover art from one of their other best-ofs, which is almost comically indistinguishable from a depiction of the pair cooperating in said marital bliss with coy grins on faces; good for them, I say.

***

St. Vincent (2014)
(Republic)

RECOMMENDED * Delightful and barbed enough pop to put you in a trance (dig the At the Drive-In interpolation on "Birth in Reverse"!). Still, it seems to me that Annie Clark is holding us all at arm's length somehow, even though she says this is her extroverted record. There's something just a little too professional about it, even though the synths are nasty and Clark's vocals impeccably frayed and full of character. But there's not a weak or ill-advised moment and the right person will find much to love. The voyeuristic anthem "Digital Witness" makes up for everything, anyway.

***

Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs
Pharaohization (1965-67)

(Rhino)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * In addition to one of the filthiest pieces of barely competent, trashy garage rock ever to reach mass popularity with "Wooly Bully," this bizarre outfit recorded a succession of assembly line nursery rhymes and novelty tunes that are conceptually worthy of the Ramones. Some of the many forgotten treasures here: the accidental rock-critic anthem "Oh That's Good No That's Bad," the proto-MRA neckbeard lament "How Do You Catch a Girl," the relentless "Banned in Boston" and the thrillingly vile "I Couldn't Spell !!*@!". In contrast to lots of archival collections from one- or two-hit bands, this brings it for just about an hour. Not that "Wooly Bully" and the splendidly raunchy Big Joe Turner / Big Bopper hybrid hit "L'il Red Riding Hood" (one of the best songs ever written about a woman's clitoris) wouldn't be enough.

***

Real Estate
Atlas (2014)

(Domino)

Unceasingly pleasant, unceasingly polite, unceasingly boring. I don't ask for much, but can't we keep some personality? It seems for this admirer of folky, washed-out guitar hooks as though excessive separation of elements and the DDD pillowy bed of sound so familiar from the early CD era isn't even a good fit for nostalgia, but in an age when people want to sound like Mark Knopfler and Tom Petty only sleepier, what do I know? Gr8 for chillin' poolside though, y'all.

***

Tinariwen
Emmaar (2014)

(Anti-)

RECOMMENDED * Another terrific band (like the thornier, more jagged Ngoni Ba) displaced and disheartened by the militant regime in Mali; following big breakthrough American success with their last record (a long time coming; the group formed in the late '70s), they recorded this one in the California desert. It rumbles, grooves and quakes, it's catchy and bluesy, and about as immediately accessible as African music can be for a western audience new to it.

***

Artic Monkeys
Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (2006)

(Domino)

!! CAUTION !! * Alex Turner is a... brilliant man with lots of well thought out, practical ideas. He is ensuring the financial security of Domino Records for years to come. Oh, and his personal hygiene is above reproach.

***

Lydia Loveless
Somewhere Else (2014)

(Bloodshot)

She went to a party, someone gave her some blow, the tears came right to her eyes and the phone was right there. So you got a phone call and here it is, and other yearning alt-country psychodramas and collapses. She's an "outlaw," sez the press, but mostly combines the ragged, uncertain maturity of Tracey Thorn with the classic fatalism of Richard Thompson. As a result, the lyrics are insightful and harrowing, but the music (excluding gripping, triumphant moments like the chorus of "Wine Lips" and Loveless' guitar work throughout) and production are a little too much of a retread of seemingly every other modern country record for me. (And as established last year with the Pistol Annies and Kacey Musgraves, I just don't have the ear for it.) At its best, an emotionally striking achievement all the same.

***

L7
Hungry for Stink (1994)

(Reprise)

RECOMMENDED * New to me, actually; I love their prior two albums and have for some time. This one is only inferior to them insofar as it bites just a little bit less -- success hangover? maybe, but more likely the result of an evolution completely beyond the punk ethos to full-on hard rock -- but the second half is still searing and they are, any way you hear 'em, one of the top guitar bands of the last twenty years. It's a sin that more people don't celebrate that.

***

Beck
Morning Phase (2014)

(Capitol)

!! CAUTION !! * It's been a long time since I listened closely to any of Beck's records (we had a long history, it ended bitterly), but when did he become this dull? Not one moment makes an impression; at least he used to be funny. This reminds me of the fucking John Denver records my parents used to play. The inexplicable modern indie rock attraction to unmitigated lite-FM boredom has apparently spread to '90s nostalgia acts now. Coming soon: Billy Corgan's album of Doobie Brothers tunes.

***

Wild Beasts
Present Tense (2014)

(Domino)

RECOMMENDED * For some reason "Nature Boy" makes me want to watch Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The rest sounds like a particularly indulgent Martin Gore (or Bryan Ferry, on "Sweet Spot") solo album -- so, not bad! "A Simple Beautiful Truth" and "Past Perfect" -- delicate schlock -- convinced me. Though now I will spend the rest of the decade getting this band confused with Wild Nothing, who do pretty much the same thing?

***

Asylum Street Spankers
Live (1997)

(Watermelon)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Among the major regrets of my previous ten years in a catalog of plenty is that I never saw this band live before their untimely, financial crash-related breakup. They are an acquired taste, sure; some say -- not without reason -- that the relentless comedic setpieces within and without their original songs render the music trite and trivial, and honestly I could do without some of the wacky stuff. (Some of it, like a rockabilly cover of the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere" not included on this disc, is sublime.) You do get a bit of it here, as on most of their releases, but when the group focuses on their particular brand of acoustic mayhem and despair, it shrinks the ironic distance of years between the band's choice of cover material and their own sensibilies. I think that's crucial: the banter may be safely sardonic, the music seldom is. It will surprise casual fans that wunderkind vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Christina Marrs, one of the best American musicians of our time, provides only some of the highlights (like the crushing, mindbendingly sexy "Sugar in My Bowl"). The rest is a true ensemble. Check out "Bizness" and "Last Kind Word," or better yet just let the band's irresistible, haunting fast-yet-soulful version of the great murder ballad "Banks of the Ohio" covert you single-handedly.

***

Neneh Cherry
Blank Project (2014)

(Smalltown Supersound)

RECOMMENDED * Sensual classisist -- and, in case you forgot, an absolutely terrific singer -- returns after seemingly forever with Four Tet in tow. Complex and serious throughout, but at its best when she cuts loose and gets weird; the title cut is as far out and intense as anything on the St. Vincent record.

***

Nana Grizol
"Ruth" (2010)

(Orange Twin)

One of Athens' most interesting current bands jumped out of the gate with the heartfelt, celebratory Love It Love It, a flawed album that was hard not to adore passionately, and after a few years I'm still not convinced they waited long enough to record the follow-up, which bears all the hallmarks of a rush job. It's surprisingly slow with filler instrumental and otherwise, but of course offers some huge contributions to collective cult goodwill, the same sort of stuff the first album was overflowing with. The bouncy yet mournful "For Things That Haven't Come Yet" is probably their best song so far. But we miss the barely-put-together but infectiously enthusiastic lyrical insights of Theo Hilton, somewhat in the manner of the Modern Lovers, that so generously filled the band's earlier work.

***

September Girls
Cursing the Sea (2014)

(Fortuna Pop!)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * This is rock & roll that I, an increasingly grouchy librarian in my thirties, understand intimately. September Girls are a Dublin quintet so new they've only played Stateside on one occasion so far -- at SXSW -- and are getting lost in the flood of neo-noise dream pop groups that have so dominated the attentions of indie bloggers in the last few years (in part because so many of these bands are led by women, and you're surely familiar with the critical need to throw things together for no more compelling reason than that). But they're different for several reasons; sure, it's all a throwback to the Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine days of yore, but it's a beautiful throwback, with a buried pop sense as strong, varied and well-schooled as such godparents ever had. The songs are vastly more compelling than those of the far more successful band Dum Dum Girls, with whom they're constantly compared. Again, there's no doubt the whispered shoegaze wall of vocals appeals to me because of various long-held prejudices and joys, but this fast and sad music has an innate magic that I don't think is limited to their interest in the records they like. Take the unapologetic bitterness of "Another Love Song," the girl group meltdowns in "Talking" and the absolutely perfect (almost Kimberley Rew-like, don't tell anyone) "Someone New," the million dollar riffs and drama on "Green Eyed" and "Sister," or the turn-it-the-fuck-up pulse running through all of it. By the time "Money" builds to a persuasive climax that eats at you like 1986 never ended, one wonders what the hell is the matter with appropriating the sounds you love most. Nothing, when the results are this fresh, invigorating and, well, (for all their self-conscious darkness) lovable.

***

The Replacements
Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (1981)

(Twin/Tone)

RECOMMENDED * A hint that they're more than juvenile thrash, but only a hint, and what's wrong with juvenile thrash? The splendidly self-deprecating liner notes by Paul Westerberg are the best part, but the music has its winners -- both funny and otherwise. "I Hate Music" and "Customer" constitute charming laziness of a sort seldom exemplified by hardcore bands, who were and are typically more worried about making an impression than these ne'er-do-wells, while the considerable sophistication of "Shiftless When Idle" and "Johnny's Gonna Die" transcend the small-town Minnesota glue sniffing anthems that populate both sides. You can hear the band's future in it even if they couldn't, and that parallel purity and complexity are what make the record finally more intriguing than tedious.

***

Hospitality
Trouble (2014)

(Merge)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Plenty of indie rock bands that've shown up in this decade show a determination to zoom right past the hip parlance of post-punk and appropriate the weirdly crunchy, buzzy ambiance of '90s alternative rock, including -- horrors -- the stuff that was on the radio at the time. Brooklyn's Hospitality are different from someone like the more unabashed revivalists Yuck because their attraction to such music isn't the surface jolt of pleasure and memory but how much more complicated and involved the act of listening to guitar music seemed then, even that recently. Songs and records held secrets they took their time revealing; sometimes they still do, but only sporadically is the effort celebrated. So Trouble's indelible melodies and idiosyncratic, multilayered performances may go unnoticed by many but not here. The songs are all different but mostly share an impeccable sense of interplay, the rhythm section bubbling under Amber Papini's sharp, hard, complex vocals and outstanding guitar playing. Papini is a formidable talent calling to mind Neil Young and Karen O in equal measure, though her gift for restraint is her own. Her songs are engagingly straightforward, smart and well-written midtempo pop, sophisticated without being slick. I have yet to hear the band's apparently less eclectic, more immediate first album, but what connects here are the many, many ideas being tested out and exercised, from the unnerved New Wave of "Going Out" to the doo wop interpolation (almost worthy of Television's "Prove It") on "It's Not Serious." Papini's guitar boasts considerable lyricism throughout, peaking with the magically fevered solo (best of the year, probably) that closes out "Last Words." That song's a particular miracle, six and a half minutes of Fleetwood Mac / Postal Service / Brian Eno magic to make you either dance or cry, probably both. From there, the band goes out on high, edging on the divine with the acoustic lullaby "Sunship" and the utterly wounded "Call Me After." I knew immediately that this album was special, but it's taken several listens for me to realize how special. I can't wait to hear what this band does next.

***

A long-festering essay about Wire is coming soon; two more lengthy posts like this will follow, but I can't exactly tell you how long. Also probably going to say my piece finally about two of the luminaries of 20th century music, Billie Holiday and Hank Williams, if my life settles down as much as I'm hoping it's gonna. And I'm also gearing up to write about my favorite album of the last thirty years but just to be an asshole, I'm not going to name it. Have a great September and please let me know if you're still out there and haven't given up on me!