Friday, July 29, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 7/29/11 - Dos and Black Market Baby

It’s tempting to think of the new record from Dos, the longstanding if under-recorded duo of bass players Mike Watt and Kira Roessler, in the context of assorted jazz duos, mostly in terms of sheer beauty attained and the casual brilliance of conception. Not only is it tempting, but it’s also somewhat fitting. DOS Y DOS, the new record from this sterling pair and the first peep of action they’ve issued since JUSTAMENTE TREES way back in 1996, is somewhat analogous to such heavyweight two-person improvisational excursions as John Coltrane and Rashied Ali’s INTERSTELLAR SPACE, Ali and Frank Lowe’s DUO EXCHANGE or Max Roach and Anthony Braxton’s ONE IN TWO – TWO IN ONE. There are a few big differences however. First, as improv-savvy and forward thinking as Dos most certainly are, their music is still a beast born from rock. Second, Dos wisely occasionally utilize Kira’s excellent vocals for added power. Lastly, Watt and Kira’s two bass idea is markedly different in pure sonic heft from the abovementioned duos, where the modus operandi was essentially a cobination of elevated rhythmic dexterity and heavy excursions of Grade-A lung-scorch that formed waves of splendid abstraction. Dos’s intense engagement with the electric bass guitar, an instrument that’s still quite often disrespected in the grand scheme of things, is in part a challenge while also serving as a statement of sorts. The electric bass was born almost entirely from service utility. It needed to be loud and sturdy and played with confidence, mostly in bars where amplification was a necessity. The notion of expressing something other than rhythmic support wasn’t really figured into its design, and that’s easily the biggest reason behind the scarcity of truly innovative rock bass players. If to play bass expressively is a challenge and to strap the instrument on as a lead instrument is very likely a foolhardy endeavor, then it’s almost ludicrously constricting to limit interaction to another bass. But Dos manage this test with ease, naturally avoiding empty displays of virtuosity or meandering flurries of notes in favor of disciplined songic tension, and the success they achieve is a thematic if not overtly structurally punk statement: Take what you’re given/what you’ve learned to use and make it into yr strongest asset. This finds Dos lining up fairly well some other very fine u-ground rock duos, namely Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina’s The Evens and Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s Mirror/Dash. But The Evens’ guitar/drums/vocals outline is punk-folk protest music of the first order and Mirror/Dash’s set up for two guitars and voice promotes the kind of seductive (to me anyway) abstract drift that could only really spring from 1980s New York City rock experimentalism. Dos are neither of these things. Get the idea they’re sui generis yet? DOS Y DOS continues their exemplary track record in the studio, forming a major quartet of long-players that belong on any serious shelf devoted to exploratory sounds born from the vastness of punk. But don’t think this record (or anything in the duo’s discography for that matter) conjures explicit connections to punkish din. Nah. Upon reflection Dos remind me of the best elements of the musicianly but thankfully non-chops-centric graduates of the punk school that, instead of going professional, kept the scale small and focused on expansion if not bold experimentation. Watt and Kira are quite smitten with an advanced, approachable, warm melodic dialogue that eschews the stage and favors the floor. The smart, strategic placement of the four songs on DOS Y DOS that feature Kira’s excellent vocals really invoke images of a no-nonsense duo playing a college town coffeehouse/performance space for a small group of appreciative listeners, a mixture of friends, acquaintances and strangers, the music quiet but intense, captivatingly nude in its makeup and refreshingly non-careerist. This really isn’t a sound conducive to the nightclub/bar scene, with constant chatter and breaking bottles thwarting anything that’s not assertively loud. The two participants use their uncommon familiarity (they were married, now split amicably) as a springboard for a labyrinthine creative conversation, sounds mingling deftly and bringing many twists and surprises. The level of melodic fluidity is impressive throughout, as is the way Watt hangs between rhythmic support and melodious productivity on Kira’s vocal tracks. The instrumental duet numbers gather an understated sense of intuitive sublimity, and that’s where the crux of the jazz connection really resides. If Watt and Kira are veteran rockers (he of the Minutemen and she of Black Flag), they are a combined rarity as technically accomplished rock musicians go. Instead of empty flash, extended bouts of egotism or tunes penned in the service of dubiously spotlighting ability, Dos understand (unlike many a prog-rocker) that the lesson of jazz was never chops for chop’s sake. The unfussy gorgeousness of DOS Y DOS makes me wish that more punks would fall under the sway of uncut jazz grandeur. Possibly my favorite tunes here are “No Me Queda Mas” with Kira’s lovely Spanish vocals and “Number Eight”, where the music includes a left-field cascade of pre-recorded canine barks, yelps, howls and growls, sounding like an impromptu performance at a hipster dog kennel. “Make Her Me” also features lyrics of strikingly rugged introspection, some exceptional whispered enhancement from Watt, and the general aura of a tune played in performance at a struggling but very funky boho art gallery while a small crowd holding bottles of import beer nods in sincere empathy. How avant-garde. The current scoop on Dos is that records from the pair might start appearing with increasing frequency. It’s doubtful they will ever become a full-time concern, but I would certainly welcome a new Dos LP every year or two. They have a slew of live stuff on the Internet Archive, but the full-on albums are where it’s at. DOS Y DOS is the new one and it’s a doozy.

In relation to their level of quality, Black Market Baby is a fairly slept on entity. And within Washington DC punk lore, the band is simply crucial. Not only did a BMB lyric inspire John Stabb to change the name of his band to Government Issue, but it was a Baby show where Stabb met HR of the Bad Brains for the first time. Yeah, I’m sure they would’ve met anyway, but it’s cool that it was at a gig and not while buying coffee and lottery tickets at the corner 7-11. Another big part of the story is that all the key harDCore band members and scenesters just adored Black Market Baby, so it’s kind of a shame that the band’s discography is maybe a wee bit underwhelming. They certainly did more recording than yr average Killed By Death punk resurrection, but it’s also undeniable that BMB’s studio history is one of fits and starts instead of wisely striking when the inspiration is hottest. I happen to like their 1983 LP SENSELESS OFFERINGS more than many, and I think the ’86 Ian MacKaye-produced “Drunk and Disorderly” 7” is a stone hoot, but I must admit both simply pale next to the one unimpeachable document in the Black Market Baby record arsenal, that being the “Potential Suicide” 7” from ’81. Not only do I feel it’s the group’s finest moment, but I’ll also stump for it as one of ‘80s USA’s best unadulterated punk singles. Those who know me will say I’m a campaigner, ‘tis true, but rest assured it’s always for a good cause. The main reason that so many young Capitol upstarts were in love with the sound of the BMB back in the day is due to how they could throw down pure punk throttle (think Stooges, Dolls, Ramones, Heartbreakers, Damned, Saints) without a hint of preciousness or suspect fashion business. The band was built around vocalist and songwriter Boyd Farrell, and it’s tempting to credit his non-instrument wielding but thankfully non-jive-ass front-man proclivities with giving a few pointers to the first wave of DC’s non-playing vocal tornados, namely MacKaye, Garfield (aka Rollins don’tcha know), Stabb and (don’t forget) Strejcek. I’m known as a tough customer when it comes to singers that don’t also play (boldly painted maracas don’t count), so please don’t take it lightly when I describe Farrell as being in the tradition of Dave Vanian or Chris Bailey. On this past Record Store Day the Dr. Strange label reissued this formidable puppy of classic punk raucousness as a limited edition Double A-side with two live tracks circa ’85 from Ye Olde Legendary 9:30 Club on the flip, and amazingly there’s still a few copies floating around. I’m not a huge fan of the practice of tweaking vinyl reissues with additional material as added consumer incentive, but in this case I shan’t complain because not only are the tunes up to snuff (source cuts are “America’s Youth” from the very worthy Limp compilation CONNECTED and “Killing Time” from SENSELESS OFFERINGS), but also because I don’t want to appear like a curmudgeon, at least not without ample reason. But the audible truth regarding all that’s great about Black Market Baby can be found on this reissue’s A-side: “Potential Suicide” is just a flawless balance of conception and delivery, opening with a clamorous guitar line and adding in galloping drums, buckets of distortion, and one ragged, weary voice. Just because this didn’t hit the racks until ’81 doesn’t mean it’s not in the same league as Alley Cats’ “Nothing Means Nothing Anymore”, Pagans’ “Street Where Nobody Lives” or The Wipers’ “Better Off Dead”. What BMB share with these US punk cornerstones is an emphasis far less on snot and snark and far more focused upon downtrodden disillusionment or negativity. But don’t take my word for it. No less an authority than compilation/box-set kingpins Rhino Records selected “Potential Suicide” for inclusion on the second volume of FASTER AND LOUDER, a well intentioned if seriously conceptually flawed and long out of print set that nonetheless holds a bevy of essential sounds: Black Market Baby rub shoulders with such names as X, The Dils, Negative Approach, Naked Raygun and punk rock’s most infamous dead degenerate GG Allin. What’s cool about “Youth Crimes”, the second song on this reissue’s A-side, is how it kinda recalls some of the pre-shit early working-class UK punk, a shade of the genre that later came to called Oi. Think Menace, Cockney Rejects, Angelic Upstarts and even Sham 69, but BMB are thankfully less anthemic and not inclined toward football-hooligan singalongs. Instead of aping moves from across the ocean the Baby were honing their own sharp thing. Some skeptics might be wondering why such a supposed classic single doesn’t play a much more prominent role in the history of US (or DC, for that matter) punk. Well, the short answer is that in Washington DC alone, one fledgling record label released Teen Idles’ MINOR DISTURBANCE, State of Alert’s NO POLICY (a classic EP, I don’t care what Jack Rabid says), Government Issue’s LEGLESS BULL, Youth Brigade’s POSSIBLE EP and the first two 7” records by Minor Threat all in 1981. It’s sorta understandable that Black Market Baby would slip through the cracks. Not releasing another record for two years surely compounded the issue. But no matter; the music of Boyd Farrell and company has survived neglect, indifference and changes of fashion to endure as a flagship example of the kind of legit, unaffected blue-collar punk rock that’s unfortunately rare as pearly incisors on a big fat hen. Anyone with an appreciation for strong punk spirits needs this EP in their life. Its two extra live songs are just bonus gravy.