Friday, December 3, 2010

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 12/03/10 - Tyvek and Hank Williams

The global punk rock explosion of the late ‘70s was such an aggressively antagonistic turn of events that it initially alienated far more listeners than it won over. While the socio-economic situation in the UK was so severe that it propelled legitimate and often great punk songs onto the charts, in the US the manifestation of the era’s malaise was substantially different, which meant, somewhat paradoxically, that the country where punk was born largely reacted with apathy or hostility to the form’s return to core principles. For a long time some folk’s faulty minds equated punk with failure simply because the appropriate commercial levels weren’t immediately attained. These days of course, all but the foggiest of fogeys understand the long view, which is that thirty-five years after first rearing its spike-haired and snotty noggin, punk rock remains quite relevant to the present tense. This relevance is certainly largely implicit, often picked up third and fourth hand: numerous bands are currently influenced by those impacted by Nirvana, who happened to be heavily and vocally indebted to Black Flag and The Wipers, for just one example. But occasionally contemporary bands are explicit in their indebtedness to punk precedent, and frankly, to mangle a metaphor, the vast majority of these acts are undone by the chaff-like quality of their din. It’s not a totally barren scene, however, and intermittently this wasteland of well-intentioned folly produces a meager bounty that stands up tall, shining like shafts of golden wheat. Detroit’s Tyvek are, along with such names as No Age, Fucked Up, Hank IV, Vivian Girls, Blank Dogs, The Oh Sees and The Fresh & Onlys, part of the current bumper crop. What I initially loved about Tyvek is how they lovingly embrace the heavy while not eschewing the arty. This means these Michiganites have a special relationship to the geographical gauntlet thrown down by The Stooges while being simultaneous sons across the water to those stern Dads of the PINK FLAG-era Wire. What sticks to the ribs with Tyvek is their abstinence from any habit forming popish behavior and an additional lack of any “garage”-isms in their attack. Instead, it sounds like they practice and record in a ceramic tiled bathroom. On NOTHING FITS, the lavatory just seems a tad bit more spacious compared to previous efforts. Ultimately, Tyvek’s success is reliant on strong, fittingly basic songwriting intersecting with appropriately blunt, skuzzy delivery. That’s punk in a nutshell. And in less than half an hour they nudge up against a host of worthy ideas. The angularity of their artiness feels a slight bit removed from direct Wire adulation, and at this late date that’s refreshing. Instead, the FLAG-isms feel filtered through the loveliness provided by California’s legendary Happy Squid label. And yeah, describing Tyvek as Urinals on steroids and bennies isn’t inaccurate. But it’s definitely not the whole picture. I’d surely throw in that NOTHING FITS is drenched in deep knowledge of the subterranean punk underbelly as documented on the KILLED BY DEATH/BLOODSTAINS bootleg volumes, and how they spread that level of goodness across a whole LP, even a suitably brief one in classique punk terms, is a major feat. And that’s because great punk albums are far rarer as a breed than are great punk singles. But when a great punk LP does step up and spit out its harsh essence, that’s ample cause for celebration. The title track here actually manages to harness some of The Electric Eels’ anti-social glory, and “Outer Limits” falls into a fine tradition of sci-fi themed punk classics behind The Twinkeez’ “Aliens in our Midst” and Tampax’s “UFO Dictator”. The whole quick mess gives testimony to the still beating heart that resides in the Motor City, and Tyvek are clearly moving into the elite territory of Detroit greats like Negative Approach, The Gories and those aforementioned almighty Stooges. Play FUNHOUSE, TOTAL RECALL, HOUSEROCKIN’ and NOTHING FITS in rapid fire succession and try and find the weak link. I just did and couldn’t, and that should read as the highest of praise.

Due to his widespread influence across genres and generations, Hank Williams is one of the musical icons of the last 100 years. People still cover his tunes because the depth of the songwriting resonates with contemporaneous fire, and listeners still go to the source because the direct, harsh beauty of his voice cuts with the ease of a fresh steel blade. The golden years of country music are unimaginable without him, and it can be convincingly argued that rock ‘n’ roll would sound significantly different if Williams hadn’t stepped into the studio with his live band The Drifting Cowboys. The solid if subtle link between Hank and Chuck Berry still holds an indirect impact on the dirtier forms of rock music to this very moment, and that’s just for starters. These aren’t new ideas by any yardstick, and I’ve been privy to numerous folks testifying to Williams’ stature since the days of skinned-knees and short-pants. His relevance branches out into a variety of diverse areas however, and that’s a big part of why he’s such a big deal to not only anti-rockers and punks but also hardcore honky-tonkers and deep folkys.  Like his predecessors Dock Boggs and Jimmie Rodgers, Hank is one of the foremost white bluesmen, integrating structure and feeling from the blues into his style with subtlety and forward thinking vision. Additionally, he could play secular and spiritual material with equal conviction, which is noteworthy coming from a guy whose life is essentially the prototype for the hard living rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, plagued by bad luck, addled by booze and drugs and dead in the backseat of a Cadillac at age 29. While Williams’ legacy is best served by the tough-as-nails full band sides he cut for MGM, he also whipped-off a slew of solo demos that aid in further widening the scope of his talent. NASHVILLE SESSIONS, a 2LP set from the Doxy label, compiles a bunch of these and throws in some radio broadcast material on side four. Those air checks are a study in contrast, with the Farmer Jim Tapes suffering from very prickly sound quality while documenting a loose, relaxed session that’s quite a bit different from the clean audio of a rather mild-mannered March Of Dimes broadcast. These live tapes are just dandy as a slice of pure history and hold more than a measure of thick sonic honey, but the demos are truly, as once was the parlance, where it’s at. Included is a sprinkling of well known numbers ( “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” “Kaw-Liga” and "Your Cheatin' Heart" are here) and a large batch of less celebrated secular and gospel songs, all given a stripped down treatment that places Williams closer to the folk tradition of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie than ever previously heard by these ears. It is one lonesome man with an acoustic, but still immediately identifiable as Hank Williams, and this serves as a bit of a personal corrective. For a long time, I promoted the essentially rockist notion that the largest part of Williams’ success and importance was due to the innovations of his band. And I still feel The Drifting Cowboys are one of the finest examples of collective 20th Century gusto (North American division) to ever hit the marketplace, but I no longer consider it to be the MOST significant part of his work. The version of “Weary Blues From Waitin’” found herein provides tidy clarification. The greatness of Hank Williams begins with the song, intensifies through his singular voice, and with basic yet sublime self-accompaniment delivers everything suggested by his legendary reputation. And more. NASHVILLE SESSIONS is an expansive yet easily digestible chapter in the short, fast and tough story of Hank Williams, and the music just brims with raw vitality that’s equal to anything he ever committed to disc.

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