Friday, July 8, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 7/8/11 - iceage and Minutemen

On the subject of bands: In case you hadn’t already noticed, there are quite a few on the scene, so many in fact that just keeping up with the good stuff can be, at times, quite a daunting task. Stumble onto a new record by some hitherto unknown group and you promptly get smacked around by how they have a slew of earlier discographical entries requiring a proper hearing. Then it quickly becomes apparent this band hails from a city or region with a few other names necessitating a thorough investigation. Add in how the label releasing the music holds seven or eight or a dozen new, intriguing bands or artists. I won’t even dwell upon the steady flow of formerly obscure discoveries that consistently frustrate achieving a solid handle on the past…It’s enough to make an amateur musicologist go a little batty. The hours provided by an average day are simply insufficient. Playing catch up ball is the sad reality, and unless something catastrophic happens on a global scale, that’s the situation for the future. Well, Copenhagen Denmark’s iceage have just arrived to thicken the stew. And they only have two records out, so I feel rather on top of things. Seemingly appearing out of nowhere and creating quite an international stir, the band’s NEW BRIGADE is worthy of all the rumpus. To be blunt, I was initially quite doubtful of the hoopla. You see iceage, who don’t capitalize their name (perhaps being bell hooks fans), are a fiery batch of punk inspired young’uns, the members falling into the range of 18-19 years old, and being informed of this youthfulness in tandem with descriptions of the smart confidence in which they tackle the form of their choosing is enough to make sensible, if hopeful ears instantly suspicious. Ballyhoo is often, in the end, just hype. I’m not being ageist. Untested babes of iceage’s short tenure can certainly make a fine noise, but it’s very much a rarity. Yes, punk is indeed a young person’s game, but the majority of its best moments have been produced by legit if not functional adults that simply, admirably didn’t want to grow up. But in the case of iceage, the proof is in the platter. What’s so gobsmacking about NEW BRIGADE is how it boldly avoids classique punk, the bedrock of the style that’s rudimentary elements teens have indeed sometimes pulled off with gusto to burn. That’s essentially where California greats Red Cross came from. No, iceage instead are plugged into chilly Euro art-punk that’s in direct lineage to the grand tradition of the early Rough Trade and Fast Product labels. And if all they did was approximate that sound, well I’d have to doff my cap to these kid’s swell taste. But they additionally pull off some enriching twists. There are some Gothic nods amidst the post-punk atmosphere, reminding me slightly of the earlier and heavier Bauhaus material, and the raw impoliteness of their attack often recalls the No Wave. But they don’t conjure comparisons to any specific No Wave band, so it’s possible these kids have yet to hear NO NEW YORK or BUY THE CONTORTIONS. What a lovely prospect. Another sly additive is the occasional speedy adrenalin surge of hardcore structure, though this is tasteful (notably so, considering their years) and wisely (ditto) not overdone. The whole record does attain a hold on hardcore’s bonkers energy level though, sounding like an early post-HC effort by some guys that developed a late blooming love for Gang of Four and Joy Division. iceage can also be described as sharing affinities with some of the recent motion on the rekindled Slumberland label, though the group possesses a harder and nastier edge that’s pleasing. I’m rather certain they’d go down a smash on a club bill with Slumberlanders Weekend, for example. NEW BRIGADE, released in the USA by the What’s Your Rupture? label,  holds twelve songs that speed by in under twenty-five minutes, and while my favorite track at this early point is “Broken Bone”, I’m also rather jazzed by the closer “You’re Blessed”, a curveball of a cut loaded to the gills with actual pop-punk vigor of a wholly non-crap stripe. The production by fellow Dane Peter Peter (ex-The Sods/Sort Sol) is totally on the money, and any punk fan not completely eaten up with jadedness and cynicism should check this out. It might even surprise folks (like me) that think it’s a little soon for more Gang of Four/No Wave inspired stuff, what with the onslaught of angular dance-punk from last decade and all. Ultimately the qualitative difference is geographical. If rockabilly sounded best when spawned from the southern US (it did), and ska/reggae/dub is tip-top when waxed in Jamaica (it is), then this type of doomy, edgy art-punk is plainly in the wheelhouse of the European continent. And it really gasses me to predict these guys getting thornier, heavier and weirder instead of smoother, dancier and more streamlined. There is, after all, no shortage of dance music in the world. Few are the number of bands that really, truly feel like sincere extensions of early post-punk’s promise (before it got all watered down and commercial). iceage seem to be on the road to that place. Color me impressed.

1)      They understood that the sound of a car motor captured on tape, so simple and common, was representative of so much, and could stand for the basis of a “concept” that worked within the band’s singular modus operandi.
2)      They encompassed the need for growth and expansion without ever becoming bloated. Listening to the entirety of most rock double albums can feel like being force-fed low quality selections from under the heat lamps of a discount buffet: It’s maybe acceptable if you’re really famished, but surely unappealing when sated. In contrast, DOUBLE NICKELS ON THE DIME is like being invited to a well prepared dinner made from lovingly grown produce delivered fresh from the local co-op. What a bunch of conscientious thinkers.
3)      They blended rock and funk so adeptly, never succumbing to the shady frat-party Hollywoodisms of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
4)      As arguably the greatest trio in rock’s history (only The Jimi Hendrix Experience resides in the same league), they understood how mastery of space was essential to their success as a unit; the room to breathe and react, and to never get in each other’s way.
5)      In addition, how they mastered their instruments without ever falling prey to arrogance. Such an unlikely punk lesson; there’s nothing inherently suspect about being great at what you do. Ultimately it’s about attitude and approach.
6)      George Hurley’s drumming, always bursting at the seams with energy, intelligence and most importantly, focus.
7)      At a point when so many of the band’s well intentioned peers were all hot and bothered over Reagan, D. Boon understood how his country still hadn’t appropriately addressed its misadventure in Viet Nam.
8)      Devoting an entire track to classical acoustic guitar registers not as folly, but instead simply reinforces the group’s core values, succeeding effortlessly as a sincere and modest beauty move, a moment of warm tranquility amidst the sweet tumult.
9)      The plain-spoken poetry of D. Boon’s lyrics.
10)   They understood that when detailing the vacuity of pop music at its most banal, it’s advisable to follow it with a rip-roaring guitar solo.
11)   “Should words serve the truth?”
12)   Punks that openly sang the praises of Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Minutemen understood the connection between John Fogerty’s blue-eyed roots-rock ‘n’ soul ingenuity and the particulars of their own working methods, both being no-nonsense, proudly proletarian stuff.
13)   Their terrain being punk after all, Boon was not averse to letting a blunt lyric fly now and then, particularly some “Shit from an Old Notebook”.
14)   The instrumental second half of “Maybe Partying Will Help”, one of the band’s best grooves and so much the better for Mike Watt’s spectacularly unusual bass playing as it unfolds.
15)   What Boon lacked in vocal range he more than made up for with a subtle variety of conversational inflection; he could sound pissed, sarcastic, hurt, worried, confused, inspired, elated, while always remaining immediately recognizable as him.
16)   They were one of the very few bands to deal at any length with the class struggle. This is weird, since the class struggle is where rock ‘n’ roll was born.
17)   When Boon slips into trad “singing” mode, the results are often appealingly strange. This might be my favorite part of “Corona”.
18)   While great punk rock is often simple, that’s not its secret. It’s really about scale. That’s one reason why DOUBLE NICKLES ON THE DIME is an unabashed punk masterpiece; it could alternately be described as a brilliant inversion of the hard-rock aesthetic shooting not for the stadium but for somebody’s backyard barbeque.
19)   Playing “My Heart and the Real World” at a party and seeing folks with no conscious knowledge of the Minutemen inspired to dance in five seconds flat.
20)   That “History Lesson Part II” survives to this day as such a profound testament to the ground-level learning-laboratory that was the glory days of punk rock, and without being overly sentimental about it: “Mr. Narrator, this is Bob Dylan to me!!!”
21)   If jazzmen playing around with elements of rock is a dangerous proposition, rock dudes going jazz is even dicier. But these three managed to pull it off with ease, due foremost to their restraint and the actual legitimacy of the jazz influence on the band’s working methods (jamming, improvisation, practice practice PRACTICE).
22)   They were so honestly self-deprecating while doing it better than everybody else. It’s impossible to estimate how much great music has been inspired by their combination of humility and ambition.
23)   That when two songs were removed from DOUBLE NICKLES so the double LP could fit onto one compact disc, the missing music proved to be an enormous, if not fatal, flaw. Verdict: A masterpiece should not, indeed cannot be edited. The full original version of DOUBLE NICKLES justifies the acquisition of a turntable all by its freaking lonesome.
24)   How the choppy punk-funk of Boon’s guitar on “West Germany” has always reminded me of a police siren.
25)   The expert weave (intuitively jazzy? Well, yeah) of Hurley’s drums and Watt’s bass all over their discography, but particularly on “The Politics of Time”.
26)   Musical growth, yes, but also ideas, often expressed lyrically, as a continually evolving dialogue. Much of this was based upon actually learning something about the subjects addressed. You know, the knowledge gained from like reading and stuff. When they broached a topic like fascism, they understood its implications and didn’t take it lightly. Suffice to say, fascism isn’t yr parents not letting you build a skate ramp in the backyard.
27)   Their song titles are quite often given no explicit rendering from inside the actual song’s lyrics or structure, adding additional layers of complexity to a whole already loaded with content. “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”, “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?” and “There Ain’t Shit on T.V. Tonight”, for three examples.
28)   Because I just know Woody Guthrie would’ve loved “This Ain’t No Picnic”.
29)   “My body/My mind/The idea of my life seems like a symbol”. Above all, the Minutemen’s very raison d’être seemed to be the attempt at finding meaning from within a system that thoughtlessly casts aside and squanders the potential of the vast majority of its inhabitants in favor of lifelong wage labor and the profit cycle of endless consumption. For them, playing in a rock band had to be a political gesture in the everyday, real world sense, (OUR BAND COULD BE YOUR LIFE, y’know?), for being otherwise would’ve betrayed all of the frustrated working stiffs that have suffered under the collective hand of bosses, owners, business, and authority.
30)   But for all this seriousness, the music is never dry. In this case, funk as a secret weapon.
31)   And for a band so connected to the fight of the worker they wisely never succumbed to the bugaboo of jingoism.
32)    For Watt’s perfectly in-the-pocket bass on “Jesus and Tequila”, one of my favorite of all Minutemen tunes. And a deceptive one, for it took me years to understand that it’s essentially a weird blues song.
33)    While it’s easy and appropriate to compare them to other rock trios, it’s just as noteworthy how the rapid-fire progression in their discography is comparable to the same quality in The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. The “Paranoid Time” 7”/THE PUNCH LINE LP is markedly different from DOUBLE NICKLES or 3 WAY TIE (FOR LAST) (while undoubtedly belonging to the same band) in a manner similar to how MEET THE BEATLES! or 12X5 is so boldly distinct from ABBEY ROAD or EXILE ON MAIN STREET.
34)   That their cover of Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love”, while obviously not their intention, serves as an all-around improvement upon the original, a forty second primer in How It’s Done.
35)   And furthermore, the cover of Steely Dan’s “Doctor Woo” is deliberately and crucially not a piss take. You see, Minutemen were never the sort to desecrate other people’s hard work, no matter the low opinion that the majority of their fan base likely held for the original.
36)   For “Little Man with a Gun in His Hand”. Boon’s comment before playing it live on the radio: “This song goes out to the Gorbachevs and the Reagans. May they sleep well tonight”.
37)   And for the captivating slow build, the flawless tension and release of “The World According to Nouns”, a study in hard-rock dynamics in a fraction of the time.
38)   That the sweetly tossed off instrumental jam of “Love Dance” serves as DOUBLE NICKELS’ perfect coda. No bombast, no false sense of importance, no desire to impress, just three guys working it out.
39)   For DOUBLE NICKELS, by now well-established in rock history as one of the rare masterworks of double album long-form, was conceived as a personal challenge after being inspired by the amazing 2LP ZEN ARCADE by their contemporaries Hüsker Dü.
40)    That the band’s whole discography still sounds like it could’ve been recorded yesterday.
41)    But for all their up-to-date relevance, Minutemen are just as connected to the time of their existence, a period when rock music was marginalized, disdained, ignored and thrived in the dank clubs and caverns of the underground.
42)   For how DOUBLE NICKELS  frustrates the temptation to declare Sonic Youth’s DAYDREAM NATION as the greatest statement of the ‘80s u-ground rock scene’s assured creativity and defiantly righteous mode of expression.
43)   That Mike Watt still plays Minutemen songs live, not out of any sense of duty or as a fall-back on past glories, but because the music is simply inseparable from his current work, still drenched in vitality and possessed with so much to say in the here-and-now.
44)   Because when writing about their music I often feel like I’ve breached a common sense approach to distance and some semblance of impartiality. But then I listen again, and understand that, at least in my case, the music requires this reaction. In my experience, the work of the Minutemen is among the most personal and emotionally evocative ever recorded, and to speak or write of its qualities with detachment is to do the music (and the writing) a disservice.
45)   And lastly, because I’ve just listened to DOUBLE NICKELS ON THE DIME’s forty-five tracks three consecutive times, and while I’d never be so bold as to call it the greatest rock record ever recorded, I can certainly think of nothing better. Its essence just keeps improving with age, and unlike fine wine it’ll never turn to vinegar.

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