Friday, July 15, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 7/15/11 - Chalk Circle and The Shirkers

Washington DC has a rich and fertile musical history, but the city's rock scene didn’t really get started in earnest until the end of the 1970s. Much of the DC rock spotlight is taken up by the contributions of numerous Dischord Records’ bands, and deservedly so. But there was all sorts of other noteworthy rock action big and small taking place in the Nation’s Capitol (or closeby) both before and after the harDCore explosion: Root Boy Slim, The Urban Verbs, The Slickee Boys, The Nurses, Chumps, Half Japanese, The Velvet Monkeys, Tiny Desk Unit, Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk, Butch Willis and No Trend to name just a handful. I’ve always held a special place in my listening diet for some of stuff hanging out on the DC fringe, the strange father/son duo White Boy and Tom Smith’s outstanding and largely unloved noise outfit Peach of Immortality for two examples. Chalk Circle, one of the most elusive of the early DC rock bands, was actually quite close to the upstart activity that defined the harDCore scene; not only was key DC punk documentarian Sharon Cheslow a member, but the band were very much a product of punk’s youth-centered re-ignition and rescue. Chalk Circle just happened to hold two elements that undoubtedly played a major role in their undeserved obscurity in the decades following their fleeting existence; a) their style owed nothing to the hardcore structural rigidity and b) the band’s membership was entirely made up of women. Chalk Circle excelled at thorny post-punk that was obviously inspired by the impressive likes of X-Ray Spex, Slits, Kleenex/Lilliput, Essential Logic and Delta 5, a wonderful group of influences that was unfortunately quite stylistically afield from the tight (some might say narrow) inspirations that impacted hardcore. Couple this with the fact that Chalk Circle were not only DC’s first all female punk band, but the first non-vocal group from the city made up of all women since the freaking 1940s, and I hope it’s clear how formidable were the roadblocks they faced. But like the better known (and curiously, mostly Brit) bands that impacted them, Chalk Circle possessed the indefatigable desire to document their music in the face of indifference or hostility and therefore set the precedent for rocking DC women to come like Fire Party, Autoclave, Geek, Tsunami and Slant 6. Until recently however, it’s been a major pain to actually hear the band’s stuff. A couple of tracks made it onto the unjustly unheralded early DC compilation LP MIXED NUTS DON’T CRACK (as well as additional material included on various out-of-print cassette releases on the WGNS label that I was never able to track down) but for years Chalk Circle existed as a truly lost band. Well, not anymore. The fine labels Post Present Medium and Mississippi have put their resources together to release REFLECTION, a complete collection of the band’s work, and I’m quite doubtful 2011 will see a better rock archival issue. What’s initially so impressive about the music is its confidence and adeptness at refining influence into a band-specific sound. The quality from track-to-track is uniformly high, with focus, smart ideas and a building sense of individuality winning out over reverence. The alternating vocals by Cheslow and principal lyricist Mary Green are as assured as the pair's extremely rhythmic guitar playing. Indeed, if Chalk Circle can be said to have a dominant musical message, it’s rhythm. Much has been made over the band’s stated interest in funk and DC Go-Go in particular, and this is surely if implicitly detectable in REFLECTION’s tunes. I really like that implicitness, how it never overwhelms the jittery, choppy, angularity of Chalk Circle’s songs, leaving no doubt that they were as legitimately punk as any band to come screaming out of the flaming yawp of the concurrent hardcore scene. But they were almost a tactical inversion of hardcore’s aesthetic; Chalk Circle possess a beautiful if lowercase intellectual playfulness and freedom that welcomed input from a variety of sources (Green’s lyrics show more than a casual familiarity with quality literature) that sits in bold contrast with HC’s at first refreshing and soon to be problematic stubbornness over the potentially weakening additives of influence in favor of single-minded excursions of energy and action. Chalk Circle can be considered maybe the first of the harDCore scene’s notable outliers, a worthy group of names that included No Trend, Crippled Pilgrims, 9353, Nuclear Crayons, and The Bloody Mannequin Orchestra, Cheslow’s subsequent band with future Dag Nasty members Colin Sears and Roger Marbury. While Cheslow is the most prominent member of Chalk Circle (writer, publisher, collaborative musician with names as impressive and diverse as Kathleen Hanna and Weasel Walter), it’s great to report the equality of contribution by all the band’s members. Anna Bonafede’s drumming never falters through quite tough terrain, and the bass by either Tamera Lyndsay or Chris Niblack succeeds in communicating the music’s funky subtleties while solidifying the depth and strength of its post-punk affinities. The album’s twelve tracks, mixing studio recordings and live cuts and conjuring an appealing lack of polish, holds together tightly and accumulates intensity as strongly as any similarly minded/structured release to hit the racks in the following decade from labels like Kill Rock Stars or K. It’s undeniable that gender played a major part in Chalk Circle’s difficulties in reaching an audience while active, but I ultimately think their biggest hindrance was the advanced nature of the music. Yes, even the most progressive of all geographic hardcore-punk scenes essentially started out as a boy’s club, but it wasn’t really consciously/deliberately such; if Chalk Circle had actually played in a style close to the rule-crazy parameters of HC they would’ve likely gotten the Dischord release that, as Don Fleming reports in his liner notes for the LP, was contemplated and eventually decided against. Thankfully they stuck to the path of their complex and rewarding sound. It’s taken a long time, too long in fact, to hear Chalk Circle in all their legendary glory, but it’s easily been worth the wait.

Before Dischord, there was Limp. Skip “We Love You” Groff, owner with his wife Kelly of Yesterday and Today Records, where Sharon Cheslow just happened to work as a teenager before the start of Chalk Circle (and still in operation as a web-store after over 30 years with a searchable site boasting more than “1,000,000 45s in stock”), started Limp in the late ‘70s with the rather cut-and-dried intention to document the rumblings of the MD/DC/VA-area’s punk and new wave scene. Outside of New York and Los Angeles, local scenes were generally getting ignored by the major labels, which left it up to smaller entrepreneurs (or the band’s themselves) to wax the stuff up for contemporaneous consumption and the benefit of posterity. Probably the most famous Limp release is the excellent :30 OVER DC compilation LP from 1978, one of the best of the early punk/wave regional comps, and easily obtainable on CD for five measly smackers through Henry Rollins’ website (he smartly reissued it in ’04). But there were many other fine records in the Limp discography. Maybe the pound-for-pound best belonged to The Shirkers, whose “Drunk and Disorderly”/”Suicide” 45 from 1978 is an undisputed classic of first-wave American punk uproar, as great as anything of comparable vintage from NY or LA, and all the better since relatively few ears have actually heard it. There’s really nothing quite like the vibe of life-affirming irresponsibility given off by a criminally underrated punk single, the music running on sheer bravado, limited ability, shrewd intuition and a surplus of desire and energy, so I’m very pleased there are still a few remaining copies available of the 30th anniversary reissue that Limp produced a few years back. On marbled vinyl, this is everything The Shirkers ever recorded waxed onto opposing sides of 7” plastic, two songs that I never heard a solitary peep about until a phenomenon known as “Killed By Death” began uncovering scads of immaculately disheveled and disreputable one-shot records from the mostly pre-hardcore days of punk rock’s twisted development. “KBD” was a truly global and underground movement represented by a steady outpouring of bootleg compilation LPs that became as collectible (if not as expensive) as the original records they pilfered from, with the result establishing with sweet finality just how widespread, diverse and beatific the whole punk impulse actually was. “Drunk and Disorderly” made it to KILLED BY DEATH #9, where it rubbed shoulders with such righteous and imposing tunes as The Accident’s “Kill the Bee Gees”, The Panic’s “I Want To Kill My Mom”, The Gizmos’ “Amerika First”, La Peste’s “Better Off Dead” and X-X’s “You’re Full Of Shit”. The Shirkers spin their tale of sloppy intoxication with the appropriate levels of distorted, slapdash musicality, the grouchy guitars and barked-out lead vocals mingling with rhythms that are wondrously basic and direct, and the icing on the whole affair arrives via some of the finest, most unruly gal backing-vox (courtesy of guitarist Liz Dumais and the late bassist Libby Hatch) to ever get captured on magnetic tape. This is a grand example of early punk in a decidedly Ramonesian mold, simultaneously subverting and uplifting the innate disposability of so much ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll (garage bands, girl-groups, speed-head disc jockeys, doofus dance crazes, shallow lovelorn laments, cheap monster movies at the drive-in) and injecting it with contemporary unkempt grit and relevance. Now some might remember a fantastic Ian MacKaye-produced cover of “Drunk” by fellow DC punk stalwarts Black Market Baby from back around ’86 or so. Some folks have even expressed that they prefer that cover to the original, but not me. BMB’s take is admirable, indeed quite awesome, possessing the density and heaviness of veteran punk survivors combined with uncommon good sense, but the original is just steeped in the atmosphere of non-pros taking a chance for the sheer hell of it and working out a raw, simple, deliriously hooky sound that endures to this day. And the flip shows they were hardly one-trick-ponies. “Suicide” is understandably darker in tone, recalling the no-nonsense sound of such cornerstones as The Saints and The Damned. Vocalist Steve Bialer achieves a weary, knowledgeable sincerity that’s aided by the music’s aggressive, distorted, bleak texture, so that when he sings “just want to die, just want to die” it doesn’t feel a bit like posturing. It’s now a part of punk lore how this band waxed just these two songs and played one gig before imploding without a trace of fanfare. That’s the inexplicable stuff legends are made of. In addition to Skip Groff, reliable names like Don Zientara and Howard Weulfing Jr. hover around this mighty baby’s aura in the capacity of engineer and producer, and it seems blatantly obvious that in a just world The Shirkers would’ve been absolutely huge. Alas, it was exactly the opposite. Man, what a crap planet this is. Get me the fuck outta here.