Friday, September 30, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 9/30/11 - Wilco and Trash Talk

If it didn’t feel so organically conceived, the opening track on Wilco’s new record could easily be mistaken as a musical retort to those who felt the band’s last two albums were a slip-slide into unchallenging middle-aged laid-backness. And organics be damned, maybe it is anyway, because when “Art Of Almost”’s static swaddled Krautrock begins, it initially gives the impression that SKY BLUE SKY and WILCO (THE ALBUM) never happened. Now I like both of those records just fine; for me they scratched the same itch that’s relieved by such major if ultimately non-ambitious works as Dylan’s NASHVILLE SKYLINE, Beach Boys’ WILD HONEY and Love’s FOUR SAIL. But put out too many albums like that and you risk being pegged as the band or artist that gets played when the musically unadventurous friend(s) come over for a visit. So it’s a mild relief that THE WHOLE LOVE gets willfully dirty in the same experimental sandbox that produced the fitful growing pains of BEING THERE and (in retrospect) hit a qualitative apex with the big, confident brushstrokes of A GHOST IS BORN. A huge part of WHOLE’s tangibly more progressive orientation is due to Nels Cline’s guitar-wrangling being all over the thing; on “Art Of Almost” alone his gets an extended opportunity to strut some positively Fripp-like stuff. And I like how instead of following up this track with a mood shift into a more acoustic number, they smartly counter with the very nice mid-tempo stomper “I Might”, a tune loaded with fuzz-bass, emphatic organ and a graspable desire to just rock the joint. To pontificate further, “Sunloathe” finds Wilco’s sound as overtly tied to late-Beatles songcraft as anything since SUMMERTEETH (a record I’ve not listened to in a couple of years, geez), but with a pleasant lack of backsliding; the more I dig into  THE WHOLE LOVE the more I’m finding it hard to shake how whole big chunks of the record (like “Dawned On Me”) radiate the historical impossibility of a George Harrison album circa ’71 being produced by Brian Eno circa ’78 (so it might actually be accurate to say they are displaying solo Beatles influence). And gestures like these strongly point to how crafty these gents have become; initially this record feels like a major shift away from the last couple albums, but it quickly becomes apparent how Tweedy and co are still mucking pleasantly around in the great big ‘70s AOR expanse that marked their recent activities. They’re just wisely shaking up the program by reintegrating those happy tides of experimentalism. “Black Moon” flashes the best kind of ‘70s singer-songwriter sensibility, being essentially acoustic based but sneakily weaved into all sorts of instrumental studio-bound magic; it’s almost like Buzzy Linhart and Lenny Waronker were hanging around Wilco’s recording loft for guidance. “Born Alone” is one of my early favorites from THE WHOLE LOVE, maybe as well conceived a percolating brew of late-indie-rock style (concise, dynamically sound and melodically bright) as I’ve heard since big sections of Sonic Youth’s masterpiece RATHER RIPPED. That they follow “Born…” up with “Open Mind”, an alluringly chatty passage of weary-but-hopeful strum-junk that should bring at least one pretty smile to any face positively disposed to prime Outlaw Country or rumpled East Coast city folkies going introspective is absolutely jake. “Capitol City” is more Beatles for the buck (I mean, the damn thing ends with church bells for cryin’ out loud), and speaking of stompers, instrumentally “Standing O” feels a whole lot like THIS YEARS MODEL Attractions kicking Costello to the curb and pulling out some huge moves from the problematic dawn of Arena Rock; that Tweedy presides over it all by sounding like nothing but a mildly sleepy version of his own dang self is quite a treat, kinda like what I always hoped Warren Zevon would sound like, but ‘twas not to be. Forget about it: "Standing O" is my early fave from this record. It’s great but not especially surprising that THE WHOLE LOVE lacks a single dud in its track listing, but special mention should be paid to the vinyl version’s last two cuts. At twelve minutes, “One Sunday Morning” is the record’s longest piece by a considerable margin (“Art Of Almost” comes in a distant second at seven and change), but it doesn’t rely on jamming or even cyclical motorik motion ala A STAR IS BORN’s “Kidsmoke”. Instead, it simply combines a fantastically pretty musical motif and Tweedy’s by now bedrock vocal ability into a lengthy, deceptively casual excursion that could appropriately serve as the record’s close. Indeed, the CD configuration does culminate with this very song, a wise move by any measure. But those privy to the 2LP release get the additional treat of “Sometimes It Happens”, a superb cover of lovely UK folk maven Linda Thompson’s adaptation of Brit poet Brian Patten’s simply immaculate words, a piece originally included on the very rare ’76 LP VANISHING TRICK; the track was actually recorded in ’72, early in Thompson’s career, and many may know it by its inclusion on the ‘96 collection of her underrated solo work DREAMS FLY AWAY. It’s quite a great song in the original and Wilco do right by it, providing this version of THE WHOLE LOVE with an excellent coda. But upon reflecting a bit, “Sometimes It Happens” points to a deeper thematic consistency in the work of Tweedy (and as great as all the members are as performing individuals, I consider Wilco to be his band); namely the sincere appreciation of literature on Tweedy’s (and by extension Wilco’s, duh) musical gist. Whether it’s the blatant Jerzy Kosinski reference in the title of BEING THERE, Tweedy’s initial intention to include the first chapter of “The Franchiser” by the late (oh how I miss him) master writer Stanley Elkin in the liner booklet to YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT or this latest gesture in celebration of the written word, it all points to the guy’s admirable aims in the direction of quality writing as one of the four cornerstones in the grand artistic panorama. Not to wax too heavily romantic (or poetic [or what have you]), but once upon a time any small press zine worth its weight in cheap pulp included a solid book review section to keep readers up to speed on a wide variety of text both fiction and non. And so it was with art, and so it was with film. These days even the best music-centric internet websites rarely give coverage to writing as an integral part of a well balanced artistic diet. Sure it’s all out there on the folds of cyberland (not nearly; you understand my point I hope), but I really miss the curatorial connectivity that comes with the close inclusion of musicians, painters, writers, filmmakers etc into an essentially endless garden of delights for discovery and educational nutriment (and I’m not talking about name dropping. The key word used above in relationship with Tweedy’s interest in lit is sincere). Come to think of it, the full title of “One Sunday Morning” includes the awesome parenthetical “(Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”. Man, these dudes are positively highbrow. I mean like moo, baby.

What’s in a name? Well, a moniker like Trash Talk fostered in my mind a first impression far more in line with sleazy dance pop or a rediscovered bunch of scarf-clad power-pop degenerates, not hulking mosh-pit instigating, spittle-spray sing-along inspiring nouveau-hardcore. I’ll admit to being a bit slow on the uptake regarding this band, mainly because I’m (perhaps overly) cautious regarding anything of recent vintage that’s touched by the precedent of the HC genre. To be blunt, I was leery of updates to the style as far back as the late ‘80s, less than a year after being first being introduced to the form’s highly potent bouillabaisse of density, speed, anger, adrenalin and, no bones about it, testosterone. I’ve previously stated in this space (and will so again, mark my words) that hardcore’s best stuff occurred early in the chronology of the style; in fact part of the genre’s appeal, at least to this listener, lies in how the music’s documentation in many instances seemed to contribute to its undoing. Quite a lot of this is specifically caught up in context. Hardcore was very much a social music; what could sound absolutely vital while thrashing yourself senseless along with an energy-addled pack of half-rabid teens in a podunk Knights of Columbus could understandably lose something (a lot of things) in the translation to a 12-song 7-inch. To be sure the ability to transcend the limitations of recording remains a big part of the hardcore litmus test that separates the truly great from the also-rans and by ’87 or so there wasn’t much on the scene that qualified to my ears as much more than a ritualistic diminishment of returns. Part of this relates to my near universal disdain for New York-style hardcore. One big factor in HC’s lore (a somewhat romantic one, no doubt) is how it exploded from geographical locations where indigenous rock-scenes were either non-existent or riddled with leather pant/skinny-tie haircut posers of the worst sort (not that HC didn’t have its own fashion issues. As the late great Claude Bessy aka Kickboy Face might say, au contraire). In comparison New York sorta had it all; well, not really, but it sure had a bounty of opportunities compared to East Lansing, Michigan. When Bad Brains skipped out on the District and landed in the Bowery they influenced a whole bunch of local denizens, mostly to negative effect. Hardcore music was immediately prey to the excesses of ritualism, but New York seemed to take pride in the act of going through the increasingly stale motions. Not to beat up on the city, but the aura of intolerance and conformity (sort of a Boston thing in the early days, though my beloved DC undeniably had its moments of noodle-brained behavior) that came to plague hardcore was sometimes worn by New Yorkers like a badge. Straight-edge, once a liberating alternative to going through life drunk and stupid (hats off to you, Dean Vernon Wormer) became an insufferable wasteland of rules and regs. I just know that reading to this point has inspired a bunch of Revelation Records fans to rub the graying stubble atop their domes with unbridled disgust. I’m sorry. ‘Tis just the way I was raised. And it wasn’t only me; I can vividly recall reading an interview with Beastie Boys where the subject of hardcore was broached. One of the members mentioned that when they heard Agnostic Front’s VICTIM IN PAIN they realized that the city’s hardcore scene was taking a path divergent from their (and my) point of interest (though, oddly both POLLY WOG STEW and VICTIM were initially released by the same label, Rat Cage, whose finest moment would easily be the 14-song HASSIBAH GETS THE MARTIAN BRAIN SQUEEZE 7-inch by Victoria B.C. Canada’s blazingly fast and appealingly strange Neos). This didn’t stop the Beasties from being snookered by Murphy’s Law (Oh, snap!!!), but I digress. Actually, fans of Trash Talk probably consider this review to be little more than one codger’s big frustrating digression, but hold on. My point about hardcore being (somewhat loosely) qualitatively tied to the suburbs and outlying cities relates to Trash Talk rather well, me thinks. Sacramento CA is from where they hail, a locale large enough to have its own NBA franchise but unable (or maybe disinterested) in cooking up any sustained rock scene action; great bands have been formed there (indie rhythm riders !!!) and great musicians have been born there (jazz Hammond B-3 behemoth Jimmy Smith), but most historical roads seem to lead out. Fittingly, Trash Talk has a song that concerns this very circumstance titled “Sacramento is Dead” and this fact bodes quite well for the cut of their jib (Straight edge? No. Blunts, beer and energy drinks? Yes). The 2009 SHAME LP collects four of the group’s earlier releases, drops two on each side of the platter and comes up with a heavy half-hour of gruff, metallically informed, spring-action scorch that avoids erring as either too cohesive (tightness being a great underminer of quality rock music) or too sloppy (combining overly loose and blindingly fast usually results in unimpressive generics). SHAME locates Trash Talk as being tied to more recent developments in hardcore stylistics, which is cool by me, but they also have a well-honed Black Flag influence (circa-DAMAGED, primarily) and a somewhat Bostonian muscle-throated chug/burn aesthetic (think DYS, SS Decontrol, Negative F/X and Last Rights, but on performance enhancing drugs) that seems to connect them to the start of the whole tumultuous shebang. Another aspect of Trash Talk that feels simpatico with early hardcore’s sonic blitz is how SHAME’s two sides rely far less on the strength of individual songs and instead are presented as a pair of breakneck suites of pummeling brutality; in this way the album reminds me of how Minor Threat’s first two 7-inch records were each packed onto separate sides of a now classic LP and additionally how the sum total of that record was presented in full on both sides of the release’s cassette format. Taken individually, hardcore songs are often over before the working mind can really get a solid grasp on the specificity of their method. Listening to one track repeated numerous times will certainly provide a handle, but a much smarter approach is to contend and then come to terms with whole steaming hunks of the music in substantial but not exhausting gulps. SHAME’s thirty songs in thirty-one minutes is just the right dose of the band’s well-calibrated mayhem. And where countless bushels of hardcore songs encourage big group vocal bonding, Trash Talk’s imposing mic-guy Lee Spielman largely eschews this tactic, instead incarnating an enraged, bulging-necked blabbermouth slobbering syllables over all and sundry. That’s the spirit! Special mention should be made for the band’s mauling precision, and extra credit needs to be awarded for “Revelation”, a long track (at 4:30 it’s practically “In a Gadda Da Vida”) that’s surely had many listeners wandering to the turntable to check for a dirty stylus. But the final cut “East of Eden/Son of a Bitch” features none other than ex-Black Flag/ex-Circle Jerks/ex-pizza delivery guy/current OFF! honcho Keith Morris, and it closes the proceedings with suitably primal élan. Trash Talk has a whole lot working in their favor at the moment; fresh off a tour with the fellow hardcore-descendents Fucked Up, a split 7-inch with the decidedly non-hardcore-descended Wavves and an upcoming release on the label True Panther Sounds (home of such diverse contemporary quality as Girls, Hunx and His Punx, Real Estate, Ty Segall and Fly Girls). Here’s hoping these cats keep up the good work. SHAME has not only withstood over a half-dozen consecutive listens, but it’s also hung tight in a rotation with such worthy (and now that I contemplate it, disparate, and that’s a word that I can’t recall weilding with this genre) HC antecedents as early UK spike-meisters Discharge, the indispensible THIS IS BOSTON NOT L.A. compilation, D.R.I.’s DIRTY ROTTEN EP, Negative Approach’s TOTAL RECALL, the first LP by The Crucifucks, and even the twisted low-fi skuzz found on the sole 7-inch from Seattle’s legendary Solger. Trash Talk is of course louder and heavier than so many of their predecessors, partially due to production (some of SHAME was recorded with Steve Albini) but more so because the band has the advantage of hindsight, evaluating previous models and then taking that knowledge a few crucial steps further (i.e. exactly what so much late ‘80s hardcore didn’t do). And after the dust has settled here I sit pondering just how maniacal Trash Talk’s sound would be minus the relaxing properties of weed. If these guys embrace straight-edge, we could all be in a world of hurt.

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