Friday, October 7, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 10/7/11 - Girls and Egg Hunt

At the moment quite a few bees are all abuzz over the big strides, leaps even, that San Fran’s Christopher Owens-led Girls has made from ALBUM, their exceptional ’09 debut, to the freshly released FATHER, SON, HOLY GHOST, and I can understand the hubbub. ALBUM was a breath of relatively basic if extremely well written and delivered guitar-pop air, holding undisguised nods toward Beach Boys, Spector, Costello and even My Bloody Valentine. To be blunt, it was just swell to hear some new music so openly tackle such a classique form while also being boldly contemporary in personality; thusly Girls sounded old yet remarkably up-to-date simultaneously. But guitar-pop isn’t really a genre that lends itself to longevity or even a prolific discography; Jersey’s kings of post-Velvet’s stun-strum The Feelies have only managed five full-lengths in thirty-plus years (yes, with a twenty year hiatus thrown in). It can indeed be great when bands adopt a stubborn/hard-line stance to the often exultant parameters of the guit-pop style, but an undeniably more sensible stance for working musicians to take is to open up and expand a bit (or a lot) beyond the basic paradigm: hence Yo La Tengo. With last years’ EP BROKEN DREAMS CLUB Owens jumped fully into broadening the scope of Girls’ sound. Just as smartly, he didn’t betray his initial template with those long six songs, and with this confidently ambitious sophomore effort he still possesses a loose grasp upon the style that bore the fruit of his earliest expression. The strategic use of horns and Owens’ vocal mannerisms pointed BROKEN DREAMS CLUB toward an intersection of Beirut and Bright Eyes, and that wasn’t a bad place to be (not at all), but FATHER, SON, HOLY GHOST is strikingly bold in the span of its integrated influence. “Honey Bunny”, the two and a half minutes of Spector-esque jangle that opens the album, is noteworthy not only for its individual qualities, but additionally for how it differs from the rest of the record, being a succinct bit of pop exuberance that contrasts sharply with much of the expansiveness that follows. A lot of noise has been made over how FATHER’s large, methodical production canvas and the layered adornments that it occasionally flaunts are in direct reference to the Floydian ‘70s. Well, sure. That ‘70s influence is surely part of what makes this 2nd Girls record such a bold stroke of sonic flair. But that decade, namely Costello again, was part of Girls’ make-up kit from the start, and it’s not the only card he’s holding. On FATHER Owens’ gleans, possibly in some cases unconsciously, from a wide variety of sources spanning over thirty years of pop/rock history; hints of Neil Young, Jonathan Richman, Dinosaur Jr. and Teenage Fanclub all assert themselves in the mix. Sure, “Vomit”, the first “single” from the record, can be directly connected to Pink Floyd’s early ‘70s studio exploits, complete with gospel-oid diva vox, but (to my ears anyway) it also feels just as indebted to ‘90s Flaming Lips (and yeah, I do realize the Lips were/are deeply influenced by the Floyd, oh yes indeedy). Additionally, “Die” is a wah-wahed-out hard-rocking throttle (the Deep Purple comparison is apt), but it’s also screwy enough to register more like a ‘90s indie-rock update/subversion/commentary upon ‘70s heavy-rock dynamics (dude). But these ‘70s/’90s juxtapositions, while quite prevalent on FATHER don’t really feel dominant. Other vibes sneak in; the opening of “My Ma” directly quotes a Mission Of Burma song (maybe by total coincidence) and whole big hunks of the record feel descended from the ranks of the sharply-dressed early-‘80s singer-songwriters. Again, this is a very post-Costello state of affairs; “Love Like a River” actually sounds more than a little like early Squeeze having a blue-eyed soul moment. And that’s not something I’d like to see become a habit, but it goes down okay in this instance. While it includes a small handful of ringers (“Honey Bunny”, My Ma”, “Vomit” and most def the Jon Richman slow dancing with Randy Newman closer “Jamie Marie”) FATHER, SON, HOLY GHOST is the type of record that is destined to be embraced by large numbers of listeners, but for vastly different reasons. Some will clutch a blatantly accessible, electric piano driven pop confection like “Magic” to their hearts and others will be drawn to the more misshapen yet still approachable weirdness of “Just a Song”. So this isn’t a perfect record, but I’m really impressed with how Owens’ songwriting prowess and the group’s talent as players succeeds at reigning in his diverse textural and stylistic interests, so that the LP, alternately smooth, hard, heavy and light, also resists being categorized as deeply flawed or even unfocused, particularly in the harsh light of the dreaded sophomore slump. FATHER, SON, HOLY GHOST is loaded with fine moments, and while I’m still undecided on the tally of its long-range worth it is most assuredly a keeper.

In one sense, Egg Hunt is but a small moment in the storied history of Dischord Records. The “band”, which consisted of Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson, both formerly of Minor Threat and the co-owners of Dischord, is most accurately described as a brief studio project that recorded just four songs in ’86 while they were visiting in England. But if a small moment now, the pair of tracks they ultimately chose to release as a 7-inch in that hazy gap between Revolution Summer (Rites of Spring, Beefeater, Embrace) and the next big burst of District-wide creativity (Ignition, Soulside, Fire Party, Shudder To Think, Fugazi etc) once loomed much larger in the scheme of DC affairs. To elaborate, MacKaye’s work between the break-up of Minor Threat and the commencement of Fugazi sort of felt, to those outside his home base anyway, as a succession of fits and starts. Embrace released one very good album. Ian collaborated with Ministry’s Al Jorgensen in Pailhead, for a long time the most intriguing of MacKaye’s ‘80s projects but in retrospect the least musically successful. That leaves Egg Hunt, essentially one half of Minor Threat (the best half, some pals and I were once fond of saying), to whip out a couple tunes that in hindsight aren’t world changing or even all that revelatory regarding the artistic capabilities of MacKaye or Nelson, but at the time felt big as a billboard for partisans of the DC scene. By the point of Fugazi’s mid-‘90s stride Egg Hunt had settled into its true historical stature as a momentary yet thoroughly worthwhile musical digression. Both songs are actually very well conceived and quite diverse in execution. The A side “Me and You” is a study in slow-boiling post-HC bombast, eschewing verse/chorus structure in favor of a slow collective chant and a nicely growing lather of instrumental dynamics. I’ll probably never manage to shake Byron Coley’s description of the song as being a perfect fit for playing over the PA during time-outs at large-scale sporting events, but that’s cool. Truthfully, I’d be gassed to the gills if I heard this from way back in the cheap seats during the 4th quarter of a very tight Washington Wizards game. Take it to the hole and draw the foul. On the other side of the record “We All Fall Down” finds Ian at his most vocally straightforward, the song's gush being mildly reminiscent of Minor Threat’s “Salad Days” and more tangibly in line with the work of Embrace, for which the tune was originally written. Nelson’s drumming on both tracks is up to his usual high standard and MacKaye’s guitar burns with its reliable precision. ‘Tis true from one perspective that Egg Hunt is but only a snapshot in Dischord’s extremely well documented discography, so newcomers to the sound of this vital scene’s first decade are advised to start with a few of the label’s weightier canonical releases; anything by Minor Threat, the FLEX YOUR HEAD compilation and the blistering Rites of Spring LP top my personal list. But from another vantage point, Egg Hunt falls into a worthy batch of ‘80s underground-centric side-projects, collaborations and other ephemera, the whole unwieldy heap of it serving to greatly broaden the essence of the era beyond simply the essential, most influential releases. Some of these activities were large and conceptual in scope (the Sonic/Watt/Mascis messaround Ciccone Youth), others were indulgent, extreme and fascinating (the Butthole Surfers curated/produced blotter nightmare A TEXAS TRIP, the Birthday Party/Lydia Lunch excursion into bad-vibes HONEYMOON IN RED), and still more were attempts to join forces, if only briefly, in the desire to craft a fresh vibrant thing (MINUTEFLAG, the EP collaboration  by Beat Happening and Screaming Trees). Egg Hunt differs from all of this in its appealing modesty of scale; the decision to release these two cuts was made only after it became clear that Egg Hunt would not evolve into a larger, working band (Nelson went on to the wildly underrated Three; MacKaye to Fugazi), and the stripped-down approach they offer is a natural expression of the player’s lack of excess and pretension. Lastly, these songs not only help to complete the portrait of Dischord’s early years (it was the label’s twentieth release), their very availability on vinyl in 2011 also points to the label’s survival via an unimpeachable ideology and well-grounded decision making. Factor in the ever fluctuating landscape of contemporary music commerce and the harsh global economic climate to get a real sense of Dischord’s achievement. Some folks used to complain that the label’s strict adherence to only releasing DC bands was a mistake, claiming it limited their relevance on the music scene, making them a "local" label in the midst of global operators, but time has proven that thinking to be faulty in the extreme. Where nearly every other punk label from the period has ceased operation, Dischord is still solvent, not only adding new titles to the catalog but also doing a stellar job of caretaking its legacy. Unreleased stuff has being hitting the racks with frequency over the last few years and the remastering and reissuing of key entries in the discography, with this Egg Hunt 7-inch as just one example, is quite simply a bonus move.

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