Friday, December 9, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 12/9/11 - Radar Eyes and The Evens

While the true heyday of the 7” vinyl single is long gone, it’s indeed nice that the format remains stubbornly solvent as a tried and true way for musicians to get onto plastic and get heard, and for that matter, as the merch table impetus toward some all important pocket money. The fairly recent phenomenon of the limited edition tour single has certainly assisted many a traveling band in securing a late night diner nosh and a tank of gas for the van. And I consider myself lucky to have experienced firsthand what in retrospect was a truly gobsmacking era for the vinyl short form, that being the early 1990s. With a unrelenting bombardment of small platters from labels as varied as Sub Pop, Simple Machines, Merge, Amphetamine Reptile, Sympathy, K, Matador, Slumberland, Scat, Drunken Fish, Teen Beat and Estrus (and that’s just for starters), it was a period of having to constantly play catch up ball (to borrow a sporting terminology). A frustrating but delicious circumstance, for every trip to Washington DC’s handful of well stocked indie record shops, each arrival of a distributor or small label’s mail order catalog, and the never ending inspections of fanzine ads for new records revealed more than a meager paycheck could absorb. Even though the vast majority of this surfeit came via underground or commercially marginal bands, it still generally followed the two basic principles of 7” presentation, the first being as a vessel to magnify the essence and essentiality of a particular song (the A-side) in isolation as one for the ages (with a flipside of varying degrees of goodness and importance), and the second as a way to present a couple of worthy but minor examples of musical creation without the burden of working up a whole full-length record with which to surround them. This might sound like I’m damning with faint praise, but no. Not every song that caresses my ear-space unfolds as a momentously life-altering experience, nor would I want that to be the case. Plus, true greatness is often revealed by how specific art objects situate themselves in the peaks and valleys of magnitude. It’s in this context that the new single by Chicago’s Radar Eyes had me pining for yesteryear, specifically somewhere around the summer of ’93. Released by the Windy City’s quite prolific and admirably discerning Hozac Records, I was anticipating something gruff and compact, as befitting an imprint that finds so much of its discography parked snugly in the punk rock garage. Hozac is far from a one-note enterprise, but with releases by such heavies as Black Lips, Fresh & Onlys, Dan Melchior, Smith Westerns and Nobunny in their catalog you might understand my line of reasoning. But Radar Eyes pleasantly confounded my expectations, and in a manner in no way aberrant to their label’s admirable raison d'être. For “Miracle” is a slice of smartly built chime-pop played loud, and after a few listens I chalked it up as an exemplary, if minor addition to the ever evolving u-ground rock discourse. The presence of a ‘60s derived but totally non-retro organ sound had me thinking of New Zealand’s legendary guitar-pop miners The Clean, but the heft of the tune is more in line with a UK disposition as documented by certain earlier releases on Alan McGhee’s Creation label. Yes, this swingin’ affair is of a very ‘80s complexion, but it’s also non-affected in its Anglo-mining; while pond-spanning give-and-take is very much in evidence, there are also enough hints of Hoboken, Athens and Los Angeles in the sound to make this undeniably American in orientation. Just in case you’re feeling patriotic. B-side “Me and My Dogs” is harder driving in its druthers, and the even more prominent strains of organ ultimately find the tune splitting the difference between the aforementioned Brit noise-pop and the less psyche inflected wing of LA’s Paisley Underground. Definitely Byrdsian with a post prefix to something like the fifth power (frankly, I’ve lost count), but with big flowing currents of heavy dreaminess. So yeah, this has “minor classic” written all over it, primarily because it’s delightfully unconcerned with the ambitiousness of originality, instead feeling like a welcome throwback the type of ‘90s indie bands released by the Slumberland or SpinArt labels. But I’ve just played this puppy six times in a row, with both sides revealing themselves as something very much like long term growers, so it’s not hard to predict that this single just might vault to the level of quiet masterpiece. Hats off to Hozac for a job well done and notice served over Radar Eyes as a band to watch.

A few weeks back Dischord Records released a new single by The Evens, the duo comprised of label co-owner Ian MacKaye and his partner Amy Farina. There was a small rumble of internet activity by way of news reports and updates from online retailers, but really in the way of substantive reviews almost nothing has appeared in regard to these two new songs. Then last week the opening of the Fugazi live archive was announced and the initial response was much larger, featuring headlines splashed across some of the biggest music related sites on the web including interviews with Ian concerning the project and the expected ruminations over the possibility of the band playing together again sometime in the foreseeable future. It might sound like I’m poised to dish some sour grapes, but that’s not my intention. Rather, I’m pointing out a contrast in the two entities. The huge if intrinsically grassroots popularity of Fugazi is only set to undergo an uptick as pangs of remembrance for the ‘90s start heading into full swing. It’s important to keep in mind that the band didn’t break up over acrimonious circumstances between members or due to disputes with labels or even because somebody in the group had the realization that their records were pale imitations of past glories. No, Fugazi just kept on doing it until they simply stopped, and when they ceased operations were still at the top of their game. When the question “why stop” has been broached, the responses have been direct and sensible; the responsibilities of raising children, the tyranny of distance (thanks Ted Leo), for Joe Lally now lives in Italy, and the intense factors that shaped the group’s songwriting and practice sessions requiring close proximity and dedication. I find it interesting that since the hiatus none of the members have attempted to ignite a musical situation anywhere close to the size of Fugazi, though this would obviously be no easy task. Just as obvious is how when a major chunk of a generation’s rock fans look to your band as the barometer of conscience and ethics, and another sizable gaggle dogs your steps for ideological lapses like they’re the self-appointed Phillip Marlowe’s of the underground, this simply has to get a bit wearying. Since Fugazi went on the inactive list Joe Lally has released three swell chapters in a quietly evolving solo project, Guy Picciotto has warmed the producer’s chair for assorted bands along with playing back-up on the some killer late works by the much missed troubadour Vic Chesnutt, Brendan Canty has co-founded the Trixie video company and worked in bands with the fine cellist Amy Domingues (Garland of Hours) and that estimable philosopher-wag Ian Svenonius (Felt Letters), and of course Ian has The Evens. While I value all of these post-Fugazi musical projects to varying degrees (particularly Guy’s work with Chesnutt), the duo of MacKaye and Farina are the most consistently impressive in my estimation, displaying a powerful intimacy of scale and songwriting that’s elevated through a rich instrumental dialogue that’s become almost intuitive. What’s been achieved through two full-lengths and now this 7” does offer familiar characteristics such as Ian’s voice (naturally) and Amy’s loose but sharp drum style as plied in the severely slept on mid-‘90s outfit The Warmers, but there is also a huge difference in tactics. Specifically, and not to get all Joe Carducci up in here, but two musicians do not a rock band make. What The Evens do instead is play a sort of electrified folk music that’s infused with a contemporarily relevant punk aesthetic. But at the mention of folk please don’t go confusing Ian and Amy with Ian and Sylvia. My use of folk here regards proportion and desired effects. It’s worth noting that except for a decade or so (the ‘60s, dontcha know), folk music has never been easy bedfellows with the environment of the night club for a whole bunch of reasons, one of which is its traditions often fall outside the bounds of commerce, relating more to community, family and as a means of documenting and delivering the past for future generations. I’ve witnessed the Evens live three times, once at a huge protest during the run up to the second Gulf War, once at a small outdoor event at Fort Reno Park, and once at a benefit in a church. All three experiences pulled my chain but good, though easily the best of the bunch was the benefit. This was due to the quality of the performance yes, but also to the atmosphere of the room. There was no invisible barrier between the givers on the stage and the receivers in the audience, no set of expectations that needed to be met to justify a high door price, and no drunken louts gabbing intrusively over the music. The Evens flirt with but essentially eschew the rock dynamic, and while it wouldn’t necessarily be inappropriate to call them quiet in certain contexts, what they play is far from serene or meditative. In other words it’s a tough, inventive sound that invites attention instead of demanding it. Few and far between are rock bands (like Shellac for instance) that disdain the rigmarole of the rock cub touring circuit, where the significant amount of gig attendees have plunked down hard cash on the barrelhead and simply desire to be entertained. It’s no surprise given the style of music The Evens have developed that they wish to avoid dealing with halls populated by folks looking to get a charge from the guy who wrote “Waiting Room”. The Evens’ records have been released very casually and with full equality between the two principals. No fanfare over Ian’s storied background has been trumpeted in the attempt to shift units, and that’s refreshing. But if the music weren’t up to snuff, this lack of self-promotional trappings would be admirable but not especially noteworthy. In the end The Evens make the grade through the quality of their songs, and as contemporary exponents of the folk sensibility, they still unabashedly channel punk spirit while being uninterested in regurgitating the structural rudiments of the form. It just doesn’t have much in common with the mindset that accepts and encourages the worn-out shadows of once worthwhile bands to tour for the umpteenth time on the fumes of prior triumphs while flogging a mutilated horse carcass. Instead, the music is questioning, edgy and direct, the lyrics aligned with discontent and protest while avoiding the pitfalls of sloganeering, oversimplification or didacticism, and the interweaving voices and instrumentation use skill not as a bludgeon but as a means to build energy and express abstract ideas. “Warble Factor”, the A side of this new 7”, opens with Ian’s baritone guitar tossing off a nice little funky line, the particulars of his instrument allowing him to cover both the bottom end and the melodic side, before Amy takes the lead, her voice throaty yet spry and her drumming thankfully uninterested in simply keeping time. Along the way the pair displays a fine handle on how to utilize shifts in tempo, volume and instrumental punch without ever sounding loud. All the while “Warble Factor” is edgy, intricate and expectedly unique; nothing specific on the current scene springs to mind that’s really equivalent to the spare intensity of their sound. Flipside “Timothy Wright” finds Ian in the reflective down-tempo mode that he’s occasionally explored since the last couple of Fugazi albums, and if given the full band arrangement the song could easily fit on END HITS or into the ragged allure of INSTRUMENT. But as presented here “Timothy Wright” solidly connects as another fine track from The Evens, which means that nothing’s missing and there’s a helluva lot to gain.

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