Chain & the Gang have just released their third album, and it displays and expands upon the musical and thematic attributes that have come to define the work of Ian Svenonius over the course of the last twenty plus years. Taken individually, In Cool Blood is a solid collection of stripped down rock highly influenced by 1960s R&B and early ‘80s post-punk/DIY. But it grows substantially when considered with the rest of the band’s discography, and especially Svenonius’ oeuvre at large.
When Ian Svenonius first burst onto the scene around the turn of the 1990s with Dischord Records’ post-harDCore heavy hitters Nation of Ulysses, he wasn’t particularly identifiable as a figure that would be around for the long haul. NoU (as they were sometimes abbreviated) were boldly conceptual, fiercely polemical and some felt flat-out arrogant.
And above all, they were divisive. Detractors considered them to be a flagrant example of gratuitous playacting, an over-elaborate put-on. Those in favor loved them in the manner some display for sports teams and grand old flags. Svenonius was declared “Sassiest Boy in America” by Sassy Magazine before they even had a record out, though their blistering live show surely did precede them; they came on so strongly that it all seemed destined for brevity, just another in a labyrinthine museum maze of rock music short timers.
But occasionally these brief explosive vessels prove unexpectedly destined for longevity while artists/bands seemingly built to last end up fading out or fizzling away. Following Nation of Ulysses’ disbandment, Svenonius played the front man role in The Make-Up, an equally conceptually audacious entity that produced a surprisingly large body of recorded work and flaunted a live prowess that’s now legendary. The music hotwired mod/freakbeat high style to a platform of youth-centric social consciousness dubbed by the group as Gospel Yeh-Yeh, all before winding to a halt around the close of last millennium.
In this fresh century Svenonius has proven to be an impressive collaborator across a fairly diverse spectrum of projects. To name three; the eccentric groove-mining of sorta-supergroup Weird War, the pseudonymous “solo-project” flower-power/mod gush of David Candy and the somewhat historically focused and theatrical (at least live) Felt Letters (with Brendan Canty ex-Fugazi). Add to the equation such extra-musical concerns as essayist (his pocket-sized collection The Psychic Soviet was issued by Drag City), internet talk show host (via the program Soft Focus), astrologist as humorist (inside much missed free publication Arthur) and hipster vacation curator (for the Bruise Cruise).
Across all this activity Svenonius has shown an unusual level of astuteness in communicating recurring themes in his work. The surface contrarianism of his ideas, when coupled with his confident, extroverted, some have said dandyish personality, is enough to turn off many observers, and when factoring in the uninhibitedly backward-glancing, deceptively non-groundbreaking nature of the music, the output of Ian Svenonius is often denigrated as an underground self-indulgence. Or, in a nutshell; haters will hate.
And that’s just the way this auteur wants it, I think. Chain & the Gang is another example of this wise musical commentator’s incremental observations/obsessions upon the daily struggles and conundrums that plague contemporary life. In service of these aims he and his band mates employ certain well-honed modes and formulas and are disinclined to care if the at times barbed humor rubs certain listeners the wrong way. Nothing on In Cool Blood tempts listener hostility like Music’s Not for Everyone’s excellent jab at low self-esteem as a lifestyle “Not Good Enough”, but the air of provocateur does remain.
In some cases Chain & the Gang’s methods stretch all the back to Svenonius’ earliest stuff; with the arguable exception of NoU’s post-bop/mid-period Coltrane jazz fixation the progression of his musical proclivities has focused upon styles that were largely neglected or ignored outright beyond their direct fan bases while happening.
Think Nation of Ulysses’ juvenile delinquent/street gang imagery cross-pollinated with post-HC and given a MC5/White Panther-like revolutionary fervor (to some a shtick, yes), The Make-Up’s mod-rock simplicity fused with mock-religious youth-congress theatrics, Weird War’s street-level funk-rock wedded to a post-radical waving of the freak-flag.
More things that stay the same; since The Make-Up, Svenonius has always had a female member/foil, he also holds a severe reverence for the ritual of live music (and how live bands sound best on records), and a definite predilection for the 1960s, an era where in large part rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t yet taken seriously by the establishment.
And again, for a guy who’s been in so many bands/projects Svenonius is one of indie rock’s true beacons of consistency. If his current groups’ have become less elaborate, that’s mainly because he’s gotten so efficient at communicating his ideas. Recently, his swipes from the ‘60s rattle around in a tin can with the aura of bedroom ingenuity displayed by bushel’s full of early-‘80s small label post-punk and self-released DIY artists.
In Cool Blood’s opening track “Hunting for Love” is a perfect example, halfway between a knock-off ‘60s R&B single and something that might’ve been found on self-produced cassette in the racks of the early Rough Trade shop. Plus it features Svenonius making monkey sounds, and I’ve yet to hear it without thinking of the eternally grand “Gorilla” by The Shandells.
The LP was recorded in mono at Calvin Johnson’s Dub Narcotic studio and presents a new lineup of Chain & the Gang. Fresh vocalist Katie Alice Greer really helps cultivate both the old-school R&B and post-punk sides of the equation here. There was already an occasional (and mild) Marvin and Tammi-like aspect to some of Chain & the Gang’s work, but with the addition of Greer it really shines.
Relevant tracks in this context would be “You Better Find Something to Do” “If I Only Had a Brain” and especially “Where Does All the Time Go?” and the fantastic “Certain Types of Trash”, where new bassist Chris Sutton lays down a line of fabulous simplicity that’ll surely kill in the club context. Vivian Girl/Coasting member Fiona Campbell takes the drum seat and does so with the necessary understated flair.
Greer has classic sass, but she also possesses a palpable intellectually-inclined swagger that reminds me of the music offered by “new wave” groups in small college towns in the dawn of Reagan. From a lyrical standpoint, a song like “Free Will” sounds positively concocted in response to a longwinded lecture from some scarecrow-thin old professor. Musically however it’s solidly in the tradition of Pac-10 frat-rock. And Greer’s deadpan on “Nuff Said” really accentuates the atypical bookish qualities that ooze from many of In Cool Blood’s grooves and how they wrap like hip vines all over that ‘60’s inclination.
This is particularly resonant on the two parts of “I’m Not Interested”; on one hand the song feels like it would’ve went down an absolute storm in a crowded faculty bar on a foggy Friday night in late autumn circa 1981. On the other, it’s clearly the work of a mind that’s not only familiar with the two parts of Eddie Bo’s masterpiece “Pass the Hatchet”, he might even own a copy for himself.
But y’know, hardly anybody cared about that Eddie Bo single when it was first released. Just like nearly all those self-produced early-‘80s cassettes floundered in the racks (if even allowed space) and were insanely obscure before Chuck Warner’s Messthetics CD-r series and an avalanche of internet blogs resuscitated a DIY revolution. And that fictional college town new wave band? Never recorded an album, though I like to imagine there’s a live tape in a shoe box somewhere just waiting for rediscovery and retrospective adulation.
In other words it’s all ephemera. Maybe the sharpest trick in Ian Svenonius’ arsenal is that he understands the value of detritus rescued and reevaluated, and the beauty of the small gesture executed for the sheer joy of pulling it off.That’s why nearly all of the records in his discography if taken in isolation can register as being achievements of an amiably mild variety. However, considered together they add up to an impressive sum that shows-off the talents of one of our shrewdest musical thinkers.
Some say Neneh Cherry is back. Nonsense, she and her vastly impressive talents never left. Some say The Thing play a load of formless racket. Hooey, they’re as methodical as an unusually suave trio of Chess Club presidents. Some say The Cherry Thing is a strange curiosity. Baloney, it’s a first-class record that details one of the strongest and most sensible collaborations of recent years.
As concerns The Cherry Thing, there are the obvious correlations and symmetries. Neneh Cherry was the step-daughter of the late great trumpeter/cornetist Don Cherry, he of the now legendary Ornette Coleman groups that basically defined an early dominant strand of free jazz.
And Scandinavian jazzmen Mats Gustafsson, Paal Nilssen-Love and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten play free and hard in an extremely modern context but are also sensibly informed by the innovations of the past; therefore it’s not a bit surprising their name derives from a tune found on Where is Brooklyn?, Cherry’s 1966 Blue Note LP.
But Neneh is far more than just a flesh and blood conduit between a musically innovative ancestor and his young descendents. Some only know her through “Buffalo Stance”, her rather excellent 1988 single or the album that included it, the highly enjoyable Raw Like Sushi. Others are familiar with her follow-up albums’ Homebrew and Man, the latter featuring “7 Seconds” with Youssou N'Dour, an enormous hit nearly everywhere in the world except the United States, presumably because a big portion of Americans find the sound of voices singing in a foreign language either distasteful or unappealing.
It’s also no secret that Cherry began her career in association with post-punk cornerstones The Slits and through the formation of her own band Rip Rig + Panic. Too few have heard that group, for they were at times very good, but even fewer realize the band’s name derives from a masterful 1965 LP from Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Ignorance of this link is no crime, of course. It is worth bringing up however, for here’s Kirk on the significance of the record’s title from the original liner notes: “Rip means Rip Van Winkle (or Rest in Peace?); it's the way people, even musicians are. They're asleep. Rig means like rigor mortis. That's where a lot of peoples mind are. When they hear me doing things they didn't think I could do they panic in their minds…”
Of course, UK post-punk was rubbing up against all sorts of unexpected influences and inclusions during this era, as James Blood Ulmer’s "Jazz Is the Teacher, Funk Is the Preacher" makes plain by its turning up on The New Musical Express’ highly representative C81 cassette. But the connection of Kirk’s above statement to the moniker of Neneh’s first band is more than just a cool reference; it also helps to illuminate how she navigated those future commercial breakthroughs with a strong artistic focus and a deep personal integrity always on hand.
Naturally, hanging out on tour busses while her stepdad broke major ground in the blending of avant-jazz and disparate global styles throughout the heady 1970s most assuredly assisted in defining the healthiness of her subsequent path, but it’s apparent that Neneh Cherry’s refusal to compromise to the often damaging concessions of odious commercial concerns should ultimately be credited to her alone; her life, musical and otherwise, didn’t start with “Buffalo Stance” and certainly didn’t end with “7 Seconds”.
As evidence, we have The Cherry Thing, a dialogue between two (or if you prefer, four) seriously inventive entities. And while six of the album’s eight pieces are interpretations of outside material, it’s inaccurate to describe the disc as a covers record; two tracks belong to the pen of contributors and are absolutely key in getting to the LPs crux of intermingling sensibilities.
Opening with “Cashback”, an outstanding Cherry original that commences with a truly killer and downright funky bass line via Håker Flaten, it sets the stage for the gradual entrance of all the other contributors; first Cherry’s assured voice and words followed by the spry, tough drumming of Nilssen-Love and the reed accents of Gustafsson, who eventually launches into fleet blasts of gruff, agitated glory in his fluid, huge soloing.
Gustafsson’s tone is no doubt formidable, but I think it’s inaccurate to describe it, or for that matter the music of The Thing overall, as being difficult. And the trio’s engagement with cover material of a popular (PJ Harvey, White Stripes, Led Zeppelin) if not necessarily populist nature informs a major part of their admirable desire to expand the possibilities of heavy duty jazz improvisation beyond the ears of the same few thousand global converts.
Sounds Like a Sandwich and Two Bands and a Legend, their pair of threeway blowouts with Norwegian indie rockers Cato Salsa Experience and Windy City multi-horn free master Joe McPhee make the point quite easily; covers range from The Sonics, The Cramps and Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Don Ayler, South African trumpet titan Mongezi Feza and the aforementioned harmolodic stringduster Blood Ulmer.
The goal in The Thing’s words is to illustrate “how close musical styles are today, how similar the energy is and can be, and how much today`s audience is melted together, devoted to creative music”. And The Cherry Thing’s second and penultimate tracks bring this home with flawless expansiveness and precision.
Suicide’s magnificent “Dream Baby Dream” has fairly recently been in the spotlight as one of Bruce Springsteen’s gestures of contempo relevance, but its inclusion here sets a tone of beatific, soulful yearning, Cherry’s vocals showing her at the absolute top of her game. And the crispness of Håker Flaten’s vibraphone, the almost martial drumming of Nilssen-Love and the low-end oomph of guest Per-Ake Holmlander’s tuba contrast superbly with Cherry and Mat’s avant-gutbucket wail.
But if “Dream Baby Dream” sets an early highpoint, it doesn’t linger on that achievement, as the ominous brooding bedrock of Mats’ lungs and Håker Flaten’s bowed bass at the beginning of Martina Topley-Bird’s “Too Tough To Die” gives way to a deliciously gnawing groove smartly expanding upon the track’s trip-hop origins, with Cherry’s woozy/bluesy tone interlaced with some exquisite avant-priestess vocal flurries.
From there “Sudden Moment”, the album’s Gustafsson original, opens with a sturdy, accessible tone, so much so that it could be momentarily mistaken for a performance captured at one of those killer ‘70s loft sessions that Douglas Records put out as Wildflowers. The mood of this mode continues even after, oh hell especially after Cherry’s vocals enter the fabric of the fray.
And I haven’t even mentioned the massive instrumental mid-section that builds to a soaring collective passage of gorgeous “ecstatic jazz” ala those masterful late-‘60s/early-‘70s Pharaoh Sanders releases, say Karma or Black Unity for just two swell examples, though unlike some of those extensive sidelong-plus excursions, this is far more abbreviated in its flights of freedom.
Though to be correct, what’s here is not really “free”, at least not in the template of collective improvisation ala early Ornette. And The Cherry Thing is surely not avant-garde in the true sense of term. This is instead what contemporary jazz should actually encompass, specifically a study in adventurousness that is inextricable from the past but in no way beholden to it.
Maybe the most leftfield cover here is MF Doom’s “Accordion”, which is wickedly funky and true to the original, though in the tradition of “outside” jazz the music never overstates its tightness. This is particularly evident in the fiery looseness of Nilssen-Love’s drums, and it underscores one of the record’s best qualities, namely that while obviously the work of much thought and practice it never suffers from sounding rehearsed. Plus, Cherry’s swagger can’t help but remind me a bit of Jeanne Lee on Archie Shepp’s masterful Blasé.
And the reading of her step-pop’s “Golden Heart”, where the processed vocals help to pull this version of an already non-traditional tune (part of the title suite on Complete Communion, another Blue Note classic from ‘66) far away from any jazz-centric norms.
But it’s the take on The Stooges’ “Dirt” that truly seals the deal. The largeness of the opening reed flutter evidences without question that Mats is indeed a monster on whatever axe he wields, and his sawing, swaying and yes even swinging sax line expresses all that is brilliant and everlasting about Detroit’s finest sons.
All the while Cherry emotes like a woman who is not only well acquainted with the spirit of Iggy but can channel his essence with total ease, in the process sending a batch of dime-store divas far back behind the woodshed to work out some new moves. And this time Cherry joins in with the track’s instrumental freak-out, at least before it transforms into a total blizzard of 21st century skronk, a sound not unlike something recorded for the BYG/Actuel label but soaked in battery acid and slid through your mail slot by a postman who looks suspiciously like Kevin Whitehead.
It needs mentioning that “Dirt” isn’t actually on the vinyl of The Cherry Thing. It is however on the CD that’s included with the LP, a gesture that easily proves that all involved with this record’s creation and manufacture clearly get the gist of what’s currently happening on a worldwide musical scale.Winding down with a splendid version of Coleman’s “What Reason”, this release is destined to be one of the finest (and most spiritedly punk) jazz releases of the year, a circumstance that will also make it a clear contender for the best of 2012.
New York’s The Electric Mess are a garage band, but not in the contemporary sense of the term. No, this group could easily soundtrack any number of the dreams that have unraveled on the back of Lenny Kaye’s beautiful eyelids. It’s the unfettered sound of the ‘60s one-hit Farfisa drenched wonder also known as Nuggets, and on Falling Off the Face of the Earth, they largely do right by it.
But before there was a 2-LP set called Nuggets, there was of course the wave of groups that constitute its enduring essence. Garage bands in a nutshell, doing it live in parking lots and rec-centers and teen dances and opening for larger touring acts (but hardly ever in bars). Sometimes these groups managed to release a single or three that either flopped or maybe hit locally, a few actually growing into nationwide hits. The especially fortunate were able to ride regional or national success and collect enough material for an LP or two before breaking up, the tides turning to more expansive, self-conscious and heavily psychedelic rock expressiveness.
To expand just a bit, Nuggets-style action, for those maybe not familiar with its charms, is a short and sweet impulse that encompassed a wide swath of sonic ideas; frat-rock party masters, sometimes with honking sax men (The Kingsmen, The Premiers, Swingin’ Medallions, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs), electric-Dylan knockoffs (Mouse & the Traps), Tex-Mex flavored guitar-organ combos (Sir Douglas Quintet), sly Buddy Holly revisionists (Bobby Fuller Four), those specializing in US-bred reactions to the early Brit Invasion (The Knickerbockers, The Shadows of Knight, The Barbarians, Nazz) and brief snatches of legit proto-punk action (The Music Machine, The Monks, The Sonics, Blue Cheer).
In terms of pure pleasure, it’s a simply fabulous movement with an inextinguishable sound that still provides inspiration for myriad musicians and listeners to this very day. And it’s this corner of the ‘60s that informs the sound of New York’s The Electric Mess. To call them a garage band is to invite potential confusion; one reason is due to contemporary garage becoming so identified with raucous lo-fi punk, a trend that really got rolling back when names like The Cheater Slicks, The Mummies and The Gories began hybridizing these same Nuggets moves with such worthy later developments as the heavier side of Billy Childish, The Cramps at their wildest and the phenomenon of one-shot punk immortalized on the Killed By Death and Bloodstains bootleg LP volumes.
That’s not The Electric Mess’ scene at all, and if that disappoints one, well one will just have to be disappointed. No, these cats strongly recall the wave of garage revival aka retro-garage figures that flourished during the 1980s with names like The Cynics, The Fuzztones, The Miracle Workers, The Steppes, The Inn and The Brood. For the most part, these bands deliberately strove to sound like they’d wrangled through a wrinkle in time directly after playing a twenty-five minute gig on the back of a flatbed truck outside a McCrory’s five and dime.
It was surely a fun sound when done well, but by the end of the ‘80s it had suffered for its lack of seriousness. This was basically inevitable; a slew of these groups cut records, it was by design a scene not conducive to change (i.e. musical progress), and many of the groups extended their love of the music to a love of the era’s fashion (color tinted rectangular glasses, Beatle boots, cloaks, beads, paisley), making them highly dubious to many for diverting from the standard late ‘80s u-ground rock attire of jeans and a t-shirt.
The Electric Mess recall this wave but are not of it, for obviously it’s decades later and to my knowledge wrinkles in time don’t exist. And frankly the contempo landscape is almost totally lacking in bands that specialize in making such a bold statement in pure ‘60s garage adulation. Some hard-hearted cynics will carp that what’s on offer from The Electric Mess is comparable to the wares of a purist Dixieland jazz outfit in the era of John Coltrane. But this misses how there were actually some rather crucial purist Dixieland groups extant in the post-bop/free era; try out the early ‘60s albums of Sweet Emma Barrett for example.
Naysayers will retort that Barrett was actually part of the creation of her style and The Electric Mess is a group of relative youngsters co-opting a much older one. And I’ll reply that co-opting is a huge part of rock ‘n’ roll’s history. Plus, as some of the Nuggets’ O.G.s reach up on seventy years of age (or have already passed; Sky Saxon RIP), they are long past their prime for conveying such kicks.
And on that very topic, I’ve no doubt The Electric Mess go down a storm in the club setting, but on their new effort Falling Off the Face of the Earth, they stake their claim as a party band. Indeed, a fair amount of ink has already been spilled over the effectiveness of the group’s very pro show dynamic, but to my ears this bunch would sound fantastic playing three sets in a creaky three story house stuffed to the rafters with boisterous revelers while some lanky dude in a lawn chair takes it upon himself to guard the keg. Good job, sport.
If this sounds like I’m damning The Electric Mess with faint praise, don’t misunderstand. The best party bands are the ones too good for that status, the combos remembered decades later for making wild nights like the above stand out with sharp, sublime clarity. “I wonder what happened to them…” For numerous reasons, most never make it past the status of local heroes. However, a few…but hey, I’m getting ahead of myself.
As a record, maybe Falling Off the Face of the Earth’s best quality is how it immediately demands the listener to take it or leave it. Opener “You Look Like a Psycho” possesses the sort of Mitch Ryder/Mark Lindsay-gleaned vocal chutzpah that either wins a convert or scores a detractor. But what might get missed is that the Mess’s blatantly 60’s derived clamor is delivered with an intensity that while inaccurately described as contempo is decidedly heavier, denser, and again more pro-like than the immortal sounds that so clearly stoke their fire.
Thankfully, this situation continues throughout the record and helps to elevate songwriting that’s stronger than that offered by the average garage schmoes, particularly on “The Girl With the Exploding Dress”. The toughness of their presentation also helps to keep the use of Farfisa organ, a necessary accoutrement that nonetheless makes for a dicey proposition in a garage state of affairs, register far away from the hackneyed; for instance, the keyboard in “Tell Me Why” blends The Music Machine, Manzarek and a little bit of their own thing, right down to the fleetness of the solo.
On a purely musical level, The Electric Mess step into unpleasant territory hardly at all. They do however take that aforementioned vocal/lyrical quality over the top a few times too often, especially on “Nice Guys Finish Last”. It doesn’t ruin the record, but it does make Falling Off the Face of the Earth feel more like a “captured performance” at times than an album, and perhaps that was the point.
The Electric Mess mildly recall Girl Trouble, a fine garage themed band from Washington state that formed in the late-‘80s and straddled the Sub Pop, K and Estrus indie empires (a group that I’m tickled to find still going strong). But where Girl Trouble always felt like a very cool lark, much of The Mess’s appeal comes from being a bolder, more polished entity. Typical New Yorkers, y’know?
In this sense I can’t help thinking of The Fleshtones, a no big deal sorta band that turned that glorious party-rock aesthetic detailed above into three-plus decades of laid-back (but never mellow) action. Those are definitely big shoes for The Electric Mess to fill (Peter Zaremba was a size twelve, at least), but if they can keep recording songs like “Elevator to Later” and album closer “I’ll Take You Anyway” they’ll get at least part of the way there.
Falling Off the Face of the Earth doesn’t rewrite any books and it won’t change many lives, but that’s clearly not the intention. And on some days this lack of ambition is quite enough.