Friday, September 23, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 9/23/11 - Wild Flag and The Raincoats

From my perspective, the emergence of Wild Flag is very welcome on a couple levels. First, they unabashedly and non-ironically play mostly unhyphenated rock music at a time where the style isn’t exactly cluttering the bins. Second, while certainly being newsworthy as an indie supergroup, they have arrived at their self-titled debut with an admirable non-reliance on hype. The fact that Wild Flag are a distinctly rock (if non-rockist) proposition shouldn’t be a surprise given the band member’s history. Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss both hail from Sleater-Kinney, one of the ‘90s/’00s best bands and an awesomely heavy one in pure rock terms (Weiss also figures in the excellent Quasi and has worked in the Jicks of Malkmus). Mary Timony arrived on the scene with the quite good if short lived Dischord-ians Autoclave, then burst onto the ‘90s indie radar screen with the outstanding group Helium and a small spate of fine solo recordings that culminated in The Mary Timony Band’s terrific and overlooked THE SHAPES WE MAKE from ’07. Rebecca Cole comes whence The Minders, one of the numerous deep bench hitters from the impressive Elephant 6 stable. This considerable collective background should assist in clarifying the refreshing aura of aforementioned non-hype that surrounds them, since the ‘90s indie-scene (while not without its foibles) was based very much on the hard work of practice and touring along with the no-nonsense interaction between audience and performer (indeed, they were [and are] so often one and the same). In this spirit, WILD FLAG is a record made by fans for fans; not for a second does it feel like it’s a paycheck for anybody involved and never does it register as an attempt to foist style over substance. The presence of Weiss in the drum chair easily secures the sort of hard hitting propulsion and elasticity that often had me considering Sleater-Kinney as the true indie-rock heiresses apparent to pre-crap (that’s pre-TOMMY) Who (a hard, melodic, vulnerable, assertive sound), and the alternating songwriting skill of Brownstein and Timony (two undersung smiths of a tune) helps to form a rich, varied dynamic. Figure in typically assured guitar playing, strong vocals and Cole’s distinctive keyboards and the impetus of the group is refreshingly forward focused and in high gear. In no way is Wild Flag satisfied with idling/coasting on past laurels. This record’s ten songs form a compact LP, wound-up tight and intended to leave a lasting impression through economy, precision and firepower; the group’s raucous brevity shows them off as students of rock music in the best sense. Also, this feels like a record that was actually conceived to be a record; split over two sides of vinyl, providing the necessary breather for contemplation and evaluation and ultimately presenting just the right amount of well ordered material to leave the listener teetering on a see-saw of satisfaction and the desire for more. WILD FLAG is an LP in the fine tradition of AFTERMATH, WHITE LIGHT WHITE HEAT, THE WHO SELL OUT, RADIO ETHIOPIA, MARQUEE MOON, WHAT MAKES A MAN START FIRES? and SISTER. Brownstein and Weiss in particular are solidly versed in not only the lessons of righteous punk demolition but also the rudiments of (for want of a better term) “classic” rock style that laid the solid foundation before so much of the form went sour. It’s telling that a recent live show I stumbled upon via the labyrinthine nooks of the internet finds them through the course of a very impressive set covering The Standells (a well loved Nugget), The Velvets (a swell-thunk proto-punk nod), those Stones (breathing life into an ol’ warhorse) and closing their encore with the great Patti (a sincere tribute to an inspirational heroine). This respectful and non-fawning connection to rock’s past sits in nice contrast to the general growth of Timony’s muse, which while surely born outta the tradition has nonetheless up to the cusp of Wild Flag registered to my ears as far less overtly tied to the fabric of rock’s storied history. Helium felt far less like a rock band in operative tactics then a group of folks dedicated to getting Timony’s huge vision onto recorded canvases. She seemed far more in league with the modus operandi of such contemporaneous names as Cat Power and PJ Harvey then the (also concurrent) unified and righteous grrl-band explosiveness of Bikini Kill, Bratmobile or Sleater-Kinney, and it came as no surprise that Timony eventually went full-on solo. Her THE SHAPES WE MAKE was a notable stride toward rock-band dynamics (featuring Devin Ocampo and Chad Molter, formerly of the excellent DC bands Faraquet and Beauty Pill and currently of the terribly underappreciated Medications); in retrospect SHAPES (while standing tall on its own) was sort of a dry-run/testing ground for the necessary give and take of Wild Flag. What’s even more bonus is how this LP is simply loaded with high quality material that touches on but is not beholden to all sorts of referential bases; “Boom” hits on some killer late-‘70s wave-oid/power-pop gusto that’s secure from being spoilt by T.M.T. (that’s Too Much Testosterone), “Glass Tambourine” holds hints of ‘90’s (for that matter, right now’s) indie mainstays Versus, “Endless Talk” rides a groove that’s reminiscent of the hardier, tidier end of the Elephant 6/Spin Art rockin’ pop nexus, “Electric Band” is a fantastic sunny-day rocker that rides to a smartly Dinosaur-ish conclusion and penultimate track “Racehorse” is a wickedly deft and implicit integration of Stonesy/Stoogian swagger all stretched out into an extended lesson in how to deliver the wallop (based on that live set is goes down a storm live). But there’s not a bum track to be found on WILD FLAG. And let’s make it clear that Rebecca Cole is no Ric Grech in this equation (actually, Ric Grech was no Ric Grech in his equation, but I’m just trying to make a point about perception). Wild Flag’s lack of bass guitar necessitates some deep bottom end, and Cole’s keyboards do a fine job of handling this task. All the while she gets some sly moves in; her playing is absolutely integral to album opener “Romance”, maybe the most rip-snorting opening cut I’ve heard from a new LP in this calendar year. In the end, WILD FLAG gets the job done with the secure aplomb of the true long-haulers they are. In a contempo scene where irony, contrived mellowness and shallow po-mo hijinks are becoming far too prevalent, these four rock out like nobody’s business, and that’s a total treat. Long may they stand.

It’s been almost a week since I witnessed a thrilling and suitably intimate set from the UK’s amazing Raincoats at Comet Ping Pong in the Nation’s Capital, and I’m still riding high from the fumes. The band I saw on that small stage gave plain truth to the notion that you’re never too old to stay true to yr ideals; in fact they were effortlessly younger in spirit than most people half their age, playing an inspired set on three hours sleep and proving that they are indeed one of the greatest of all post-punk bands. Like many others (including the late Kurt Cobain) I consider my discovery of The Raincoats to be a true epiphany. I’d read about them numerous times in the erudite late-‘80s fanzine press (and also through the writings of Greil Marcus) as an essential puzzle piece in the great abstract jigsaw of 20th century underground culture, but when I finally heard their releases in typically non-chronological order (as was the norm in those days) I was frankly unprepared for the defiant brilliance, the sheer transcendence of their sound. At this late date the band’s music still startles with its verve, originality and tense beauty, and there isn’t a record in their discography that’s short of indispensible. I stumbled onto their second LP, 1981’s ODYSHAPE after being intrigued by “In Love”, their contribution to the Rough Trade record label’s massive and scene-defining compilation WANNA BUY A BRIDGE?, where they shared groove space with such cornerstone names as Stiff Little Fingers, Television Personalities, Kleenex, Cabaret Voltaire, Swell Maps and Robert Wyatt. “In Love” remains a wonderfully loping and infectious bit of itchy/achy post-punk action that served as just one highlight on their self-titled debut LP, but I didn’t get to hear that full record until Geffen issued it on CD at Cobain’s request in the early ‘90s. I rescued ODYSHAPE from a used-bin the summer after graduating high-school in ‘89, and, simply put, it was a straight-up head-smacking revelation. More than just post-punk, it was a record teeming with experimentation, as strong as anything from the era recorded buy their contemporaries Pere Ubu, Red Krayola and even This Heat, whose Charles Hayward guests on the freshly reissued LP). While the influence of reggae/dub was immediately recognizable, it was also just as quickly apparent that Ana Da Silva, Gina Birch and Vicky Aspinall were utilizing this reference point (a sort of inescapable one in the context of the UK scene of the time) toward largely uncharted waters, not as a trope but instead as a true launching pad. ODYSHAPE was/is a statement of liberating exploration and in the summer of ‘89 it assisted in the evolution of my still largely novice ears as a fascinating and at times confounding documentation of artistic and spiritual independence. Context later helped shed appropriate light on the striking boldness of this sophomore masterpiece. ‘79’s THE RAINCOATS remains one of the two or three sweetest (which is to say most fully realized) post-punk albums ever released, loaded with undying anthems of impulsive imagination (for example, closer “No Looking” adapted lyrics from a poem by the great Jacques Prévert). Their third LP MOVING from ’84 found them successfully integrating pop, funkiness and exotic touches to their sound, the band maturing and growing (moving, ya’ understand?) without stagnating or backsliding one bit. The sound of this record cozies up nice to much of the New York City post-New/No Wave progressiveness that hit the racks in the early ‘80s. But suffice to say, after spending ample time with MOVING I never felt the need to listen to the Tom Tom Club again.  Smack dab between the 1st and 3rd LP poles sits ODYSHAPE, a slab of sonic adventurousness that stands as a beacon to all that was great in the punkish desire to blow shit up and start from scratch (apologies to Simon Reynolds). Opening cut “Shouting Out Loud” (really takes the ball of wonderment that was the sound of The Slits and sprints with it) and “Only Loved at Night” (feels like a metronomic sleepy-time soundtrack from the feverish brain of pre-Jehovah David Thomas) are perhaps the most instantly graspable tracks on the album, the two songs that border on anthemic “hits” from a very non-pop record (indeed, they played both at the show I just attended), and while I love them dearly my personal favorite from the record might just be “Red Shoes”, partly because I am enamored with the heavy-bow wooziness of Vicky Aspinall (and the way it weaves so thrillingly with the vocals at the beginning of the tune); her violin playing was such a distinctive and indispensable part of the band’s whole make-up and what’s more it never for a second felt like a gimmick. She’s since been replaced to fine effect in The Raincoats’ line-up by Anne Wood, who’s been with them since ‘96’s excellent reunion disc LOOKING IN THE SHADOWS, carrying the torch with sturdy assurance. Moments like “Dancing in My Head” (a nod to Ornette’s Prime Time?), in fact the whole LP, feels positively contemporary, partially because so little has approached it in quality of sound since its release and partially because the Raincoats were simply ahead of their time. They still are ahead of their time; in advance of the game in the here-and-now because so few people can touch the pure magnificence of their achievement (if I sound like a stark raving fan instead of an impartial observer so be It. There is a time for that and a time for this and this is one of those times), and at the head of the class back then because The Raincoats were one of the integral building blocks in the (still in progress) dismantling of male-centric rock music bullshit. Any attempt to champion the legacy of The Raincoats that downplays or underestimates their importance as groundbreaking rock women is severely faulty and ideologically suspect. Along with The Slits, X-Ray Spex, Kleenex/Lilliput, Essential Logic, Delta 5 and others, The Raincoats played music purely on their terms. No dressing up pretty because the lame-ass dude from the record label said they should. No settling for playing bass because that’s what their boyfriend demanded. As such the totality of The Raincoats’ oeuvre is so indelibly connected to the great strides of female musicians in the decades hence their formation that anybody who’s gassed to the sounds offered up by labels like K (Beat Happening, Lois Maffeo, Mecca Normal), Kill Rock Stars (Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney, Marnie Stern) or even the big indie heavy hitters like Sub Pop (Vaselines, Spinanes), Matador (Helium, Cat Power) or Merge (Camera Obscura, Odes, Eleanor Friedberger, Wild Flag) owes them a gesture of serious gratitude. But don’t just take my word for it. Discover ODYSHAPE and see for yourself. You might thank me later, but more importantly you’ll thank the Raincoats, one of the finest bands to ever fall under the spell of punk and make D.I.Y. such an attractively galvanizing proposition.

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