Friday, February 25, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 2/25/11 - Hank IV and Wilco

Like a pissed-off and disgusted Earl Weaver vandalizing home plate after a particularly contentious call in a meaningless game between last place teams in the sweltering dog-days of a long gone Baltimore August, San Franciscans Hank IV are kicking up a whole bunch of dirt.  What a fine spectacle. Playing a muscular brand of punkish rock that’s positively hi-fi compared to their current Siltbreeze labelmates and most of the band’s contemporary compadres on the scene for that matter, Hank IV really raise the stakes on their latest LP, the heavy, dexterous and bluntly titled III. The root of the group’s riotous goodness lays in their strong songwriting, which is melodious yet simple and direct, and how it’s delivered with the bruising, well practiced musicianship of underground vets (Hank IV membership includes dudes involved with such well regarded names as Icky Boyfriends, The Resineators and even Denver CO punk legends Bum Kon). Their songwriting has a loose affinity to Mission Of Burma and more explicitly to Peter Prescott’s post-Burma indie-rock concern Volcano Suns, an influence that’s magnified substantially by former-Sun/current-Burma member Bob Weston’s unimpeachable mastering of this suitably raw and compact record. This circuitous connection to the North American rock scene of the mid-1980s does a great job of placing Hank IV into an appropriate context. Where many currently happening punk outfits are descended from the beatifically fly-by-night aura documented on assorted KILLED BY DEATH and BLOODSTAINS bootleg comps, an experience that deliriously chronicles the early ‘80s fallout of punk’s commercial disintegration, Hank IV instead draw inspiration from the second half of that decade, where numerous bands like the Suns and Death Of Samantha established a refocusing of momentum, retaining punk’s surly defiance while abandoning any overt debts to the form’s snotty and spiky-haired origins. At the time this movement, part of Indie-Rock Mk 1, was largely unheralded outside of college radio/fanzines/local record shops, but it was instrumental in the lead up to Nirvana and the Grunge Explosion’s temporary reshuffling of the deck of rock ‘n’ roll hierarchy. This was the locale from whence Flaming Lips and Dinosaur Jr. and Jon Spencer and Sonic Youth all sprang, but that’s not the stuff that feeds Hank IV’s clamorous attack. No, they are inspired instead by the smaller-scale, passionately workmanlike breed of band that often shared stages with the above-named groundbreakers, touring the country on the strength of solid followings and landing club gigs and support slots where they honed their sound and heightened their chops amidst the willful indifference of the public at large, only to be discovered and reassessed retroactively. Aggressive and blunt on the surface while being smartly conceived and wisely executed underneath, these groups provide exemplary evidence of how the music of niche artists, while lacking in the elements of widespread popularity instead possesses a characteristic that’s just as important, specifically a level of quality that insures longevity and relevance. Like a dog-eared copy of a beat up album passed around neighborhoods and handed down by older siblings for generations, III basks in just this sort of modest yet vital sensibility. From opener “Garbage Star” to closer “2X Quit”, Hank IV kick out eight songs that detail mastery of riff and distortion, well controlled bombast and equally employed shifts of tempo, vocals that sing while shouting and rhythms pummeling and athletic. There are detectable strands of smart punk antecedents like Australia’s Saints and perhaps even Portland OR legends The Wipers alongside late-‘80s threads like the already detailed  Volcano Suns and even the skewed-pop mindset of Columbus OH legend Ron House. It’s the sound of a night in a ratty club with 25-100 people pumping fists and jumping around, and as the music infuses the air with a constantly building level of energy, the band peaks and then holds this altitude for a few galvanizing moments before leaving the whole room reeling and gasping for more. As pulse rates return to normal, sweat dries to the skin and the night reliably hurdles toward morning, thoughts then turn to finding the next opportunity for feeling this alive. Hank IV may never become huge, but they will always be essential.

Wilco are a band I’ve always dug, but for me they really started to make inroads to musical immortality with the release of YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT in 2002. This isn’t any kind of bold statement. Before YANKEE, Wilco were absent from many people’s maps of significant ‘90s rock action due in large part to antipathy toward the alt-country genre. Wilco sprang from the tumultuous breakup of Uncle Tupelo, a band that many credit with kick-starting the whole alt-country shebang, a claim that’s erroneous since among other distortions it disses the work of Chicago’s criminally underrated Souled American, but that’s another matter for another time. The distaste of many toward alt-country was fairly comical; while it’s never been my favorite genre, it’s obviously perfectly valid as a form, and in fact most of the wannabe curmudgeons bemoaning the style’s lack of authenticity frankly couldn’t identify a truly great country album if it crawled over and puked bourbon on their maroon limited edition Chuck Taylors. Again I digress. Wilco’s first major leap forward came with their second effort BEING THERE. Released in 1996, it’s an expansive two-disc effort that proved the band was capable of truly great things. But it was the appearance of YANKEE that really got the fireworks flaring in earnest, the first of two extremely productive collaborations with wildcard producer Jim O’Rourke. It and A GHOST IS BORN forced a whole lot of naysayers to spend substantial quality time with the band while renouncing their previous pronouncements as serious errors of judgment. Trust me, for I saw it happen more than once. 2007’s excellent SKY BLUE SKY saw the end of the working relationship with O’Rourke, and for some it’s a disappointment. But not for me. Sure, SKY lacks the wide open experimentalism of the previous two efforts, but it replaces it with take on contemporary rock music that’s mature, erudite and natural. It features a big, relaxed opener in “Either Way”, a very ‘70s tune that’s a bit like Todd Rundgren gone Laurel Canyon. “You Are My Face” is identifiably Band-like, with Tweedy injecting just a hint of Soul into his vocalizing. A big part of how SKY avoids the pitfalls of disappointment is due to the instrumental prowess of the entire group and in particular new members Nels Cline and Pat Sansone. “Impossible Germany” finds Cline layering in just the right amount of ‘70s AOR guitar junk before getting tastefully freaky at the close, and “Side With the Seeds” includes moments of grandly swelling string tumult that soars into a excellent cascade of agitated virtuosity. Tweedy’s vocals and lyrics often slide into a suavely introspective impenetrability, not at all the stuff of shower singing but nonetheless warm and inviting and memorable. “Shake It Off” displays more of that ‘70s mastery of dynamics and deep non-ruinous production, the kind of tune that goes from pensive to raucous at the drop of a lid. The electric piano and casually confident strutting of “Hate It Here” might be off-putting to some, but I find its flashy zest and strained orthodoxy quite welcome. “Walken” however is the album’s clear standout, integrating elements of prime Little Feat and some grand slide guitar squiggling worthy of the early Allmans at their most eclectic. Quite a feast. From there the album expertly winds down, first with the mildly Dylanesque sing-along “What Light” and then with “On and On and On”, as finely layered a piece of Tweedy’s emotionally fragile pop construction as I’ve yet heard. Some people continue to grouse that he’s just a modestly talented guy surrounded by top notch musicians, but SKY’s opener and closer and title track show how well his songwriting skills have developed since Wilco released AM almost seventeen years ago. And one last thing: The undeniable influence of ’70s rock craft (very singer-songwriter-like, often jammy, occasionally faux-mellow) has led some to dismiss this record and late-Wilco as purveyors of a spurious genre called Dad-Rock. Well, as I type and listen I’m surveying the landscape of my apartment, and I can’t find a tyke anyplace, though there is a lethargic housecat lounging on a pillow. So Dad-Rock, my ass. The bogus jokers making this accusation are in no way different from those that continuously carped over Uncle Tupelo’s lack of “realness” back in the day. Some people are far too preoccupied with appearances and lifestyles for anyone’s good. Forget about them. SKY BLUE SKY is a fine dose well administered. I bet it would even sound great on 8-track.