Much is being made about The Decemberists’ scaling down into a simpler, catchier, poppier Americana-steeped presentation on their outstanding new album THE KING IS DEAD. And that’s not a bit surprising after the proggy, metal-tinged rock-theatrical grandiosity of THE HAZARDS OF LOVE, a masterpiece of a record that’s ambitiousness is going to age like fine cheddar. But some of the hullabaloo seems a bit or a lot overblown, depending on my mood. Because these chaps and a chick have always been excellent at crafting concise melodic song statements; it’s just that until now this characteristic was a selectively used quill in their quiver. CASTAWAYS AND CUTOUTS had “July, July!”, HER MAJESTY “Billy Liar” and “Song For Myla Goldberg”, PICARESQUE “Sixteen Military Wives”, and THE CRANE WIFE “O Valencia”. Really, only HAZARDS and the rather slept on classic THE TAIN EP essentially eschew the band’s distinct pop sensibility in toto. If the above listed tunes count amongst yr favorites from this crew, then the new one should warm some considerable ear- cockles, for their appealing songsmanship is spotlighted front and center. Also, those that love the sparse strum of Colin Meloy’s more downtrodden side should fear not, for the man’s ability to achieve melancholy atmospherics without plunging into the dank soup-vat of maudlin tears is on strong display, particularly on the simply beautiful “January Hymn”. The biggest reason for Meloy’s lyrical success lies in his by now well entrenched bookish quality, often out-of-time and occasionally pleasingly obscure, where he comes off as a full-fledged fictioneer traversing choppy waves of woeful discontent, and when he’s depicting a bleak corner of some uncertain existence, his direct and nasally singing style paints him as a strong shouldered troubadour and not a spongy-damp emo-confessor. Now, another bit of hubbub directed at THE KING IS DEAD relates to the influence of early R.E.M., and while there are certainly tangible touches of ‘80s Athens goodness to be found herein, I frankly believe that if KING guest contributor Peter Buck had played an anonymous role there’d be much less talk of this link (though Meloy referencing R.E.M. in recent interviews surely plays the largest part in amplifying this connection). Ultimately, the descriptions of newfound overt Americanaisms make the most sense to my lobes, and this is certainly the group’s least English-sounding record. Gillian Welch’s sturdy and pretty vocal contribution deepens this welcome new wrinkle, and I can’t deny that I do detect brief instrumental flashes that are somewhat remindful of Wilco. But whole big chunks of KING feel influenced by the sprawling hugeness of The Band. Maybe I’m still under the spell of seeing/hearing them cover “The Weight” (with Mavis Staples) a few years back, but upon reflection there is a clear understanding of simplicity and depth in the track-list of this new LP that feels very much informed by the shared experience and knowledge of Hudson, Helm and company. If after all of this you find yrself still skeptical over The Decemberists so-called “new direction”, please let me ask that you forget that The Who once released an overstuffed and rotten record called TOMMY. Actually, let me start over and please ask you to ignore that I think TOMMY is a stone overblown stinker and instead pay special attention to their fine (if mildly flawed) studio follow up, the sensible retreat into relative hard-rock economy, 1971’s WHO’S NEXT. Because that album illustrates how sometimes a considerable retrenchment proves to be the smartest maneuver, and THE KING IS DEAD, from beginning to end, shows The Decemberists know just how to rip it up and reframe the parameters of their sound. Bully for them.
For a long time I was mildly resistant to the strength and velocity of Bad Brains. Part of the reason lied in the reverential treatment they received, with many fans awarding them the title of Undisputed Champions of American Hardcore. Problem was, some of us did dispute this accolade, and the simple act of doing so resulted in a lot of hot collars, hurt feelings and drawn lines. While deep down I knew that the Brains were indeed one of the finest and most important exponents of the original hardcore wave, I still held them at arm’s length, choosing instead to vocally advocate for a host of other HC bands, Minor Threat, Big Boys, Negative Approach, Faith, Void and SS Decontrol to name just a handful. Factor in that Bad Brains were an undeniably self-destructive bunch that frankly overstayed their welcome with endless tours, break-ups and suspect comeback records that were predictably touted by the faithful as a return to form, and it should be easy to see why I kept these guys at a personal distance for so many years. Their self-titled 1982 release on the ROIR label, originally available only as a cassette, was the one Brains’ document from their original, pre-metallic shift that would inspire a periodic personal indulgence; easily fitting into a shirt pocket and packed with both muscular spring-coiled riff-mauling and leavening doses of reggae, it was tailor made for abusing a car’s cheap speakers while high-tailing it to some specious destination. In the intervening years I’ve come to terms with the group’s still somewhat outsized rep, understanding that their most passionate devotees will continue to unabashedly stump for their rarified place in the pantheon of loud and fast, likely for all eternity. So it’s now just as easy for me to heartily recommend the LP edition of the ROIR tape as it once was to give the high-hat to the band that spawned it. Ira Kaplan explains in his short but smart liner notes how Bad Brains initial reception was significantly less than adulatory, a circumstance they shared with nearly all of their hardcore peers. Plenty of style victims simply couldn’t countenance the raggedy dishevelment that was inherent to the original HC blast, and many others misinterpreted the wild restructuring of basic punk principles as a reactionary tendency, to say nothing of those that had fallen into keyboard and synthesizer hell. Much has been made of the Brains’ origins as jazz-fusionistas, and this obviously chops-heavy groups’ examination of simplicity, density and speed certainly stood out in a genre that was never lauded for its diversity. At their best, Bad Brains’ had irreplicable traits that left nearly all of their followers wanting. These numerous disciples could bring the heavy, but they simply lacked the subtleties of personality that defined Bad Brains’ early work as a solid break from the norm. By the time I became acquainted with the punk/HC/u-ground scene, this New York via DC unit was ensconced as royalty. What a difference five years makes. My introduction to the band came through I AGAINST I, released in 1986 on the SST label, and that album registered in my consciousness as a pretty cool weird hard rock record, one that’s aged quite well in retrospect. A few weeks later I heard the raging third version of their anthem “Pay To Cum” while watching Marin Scorsese’s cinematic quirkfest AFTER HOURS and without the aid of the end credits would’ve never guessed it was the same band. That version of “Pay To Cum” is a centerpiece of the ’82 LP, presenting their roughshod precision in all of its wigged-out glory and helping to make that album an absolute cornerstone of American punk. There, I said it. The early era of Bad Brains, from their fantastic first 7’’ up to the faulty but worthy Ric Ocasek-produced ROCK FOR LIGHT LP is essential listening for anyone curious about the tricky contours of American punk’s subterranean developments, and if you’re a newcomer to Bad Brains or to the style as a whole, their full-length debut is a great place to start.