Friday, January 20, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 1/20/12 - The OBN IIIs and Shannon and the Clams

It’s a natural circumstance that naysayers and grouches of all stripes will soapbox the end of quality sounds, croaking to any ears that’ll listen over the perceived diminishing returns of the contemporary musical landscape. It’s not a bit hard to find these joyless souls, for they often hold up barstools and lean on coffee counters looking to impart their faulty wisdom in the hopes of mobilizing a sad-sack army, and they might even be that wagging tongue nobody wants to run into at the worksite water-cooler. Indeed, these sour sorts can also be friends and family; if this is the case an early intervention can steer the individual back onto the true path, but please understand that knowing the symptoms is a MUST. For instance, if they bark that jazz has lost its gusto, play them some Peter Evans or Darius Jones and fast. And if they complain that nobody spits off sparks like the old-time musicians of yore, introduce them to Frank Fairfield or Charlie Parr immediately. If the accusation is a more complex one, like the absence of truly unique and non-trad solo players-writers-voices, then just sit them down in a room with Bill Callahan or Joanna Newsom and watch the scales fall from their eyes. One of the most common bits of crotchety carping is a short bit of business; specifically the “punk is dead” screed. People have been saying this for nearly as long as the form has been around, but it’s obviously never been accurate. The complicating factor is that punk’s qualitative window of opportunity is so often very finite. People faultily assume that when a beloved band (or a bunch of them) hits the skids with inferior recordings it foretells the end of the genre as a whole. No, punk is largely the game of pissed-off, impolite kids banding together in defiance of the standards of old folks everywhere; it’s all explained with bold, succinct strokes in the title of The Dead Boys’ classic YOUNG LOUD AND SNOTTY. If you happen to discover someone fuming over punk’s obsolescence quickly play them anything by the OBN IIIs, particularly the band’s sizzling debut long player from last year THE ONE AND ONLY, released through prolific indie Tic Tac Totally. Said curmudgeon will either snap right back onto the trail of righteous thinking or you’ll know right away that sadly, you’re attempt at resuscitating a musical mind occurred too late, for this Austin TX band, led by and named for singer/screamer Orville Bateman Neeley III, pound down some of the finest, rippingest, unsubtlest Stooge-oid rumble and slam to have graced my long-violated ears since the heyday of the ‘80s Australian u-ground or even ‘85’s LAST TRAIN TO HAGERSTOWN by mighty Maryland maulers The Left. But the OBN IIIs are far from any sort of throwback, as THE ONE AND ONLY’s “When the Shit Fits” easily proves. It swaggers forth with the kind of mid-tempo muscle that was occasionally summoned by only a select handful of the most inspired post-Detroit bashers, but frankly none of those admirable bands possessed the attitudinal daring to open with what most people would choose as the closer. That’s what’s called chutzpah, and Mr. Neeley and co has it in buckets. Another swell reference point for the band’s sound is San Francisco’s first wave titans Crime. Like those monsters of “Hot Wire My Heart” fame, OBN III’s care not a bit about speed for the sake of it, instead choosing to simply buckle down and deliver dense slabs of riff crunch that add up to one huge wallop. Plus, these guys understand a few crucial factors about the peaks and valleys of rock dynamics as spread across two sides of a full length punk disc, a fact made clear by THE ONE AND ONLY’s dozen songs forming a scorching mass that suffers from neither sameiness nor unwise stabs at sonic or thematic variation. The OBN III’s basically do one thing and do it extremely well, and all importantly they recognize this not as a fault but as their core strength, at least at this stage in the game. It’s certainly possible they could slowly integrate disparate elements into the whole, for this is after all just their first LP. And based on this slab of righteous throb, any motions toward stylistic branching will be far more likely to arise as natural integrations and not ill-advised stabs at tonal variety. But the OBN IIIs’ songs flaunt such a high standard of unhyphenated punk quality that I’d like to see how long they can stay on this direct course; two or three more albums of this pure (but not purist) expression of heaving junk and golden snot would signify a true rarity in the punk continuum. As a truly heavy band (meaning they possess a bruising rhythm section that understands its role and works it to the hilt) they could prove up to the task. Perhaps the best track on THE ONE AND ONLY is “Get off Your Knees”, a gorgeously ragged bout of post-Heartbreakers throat rip and string burn, but the Eddy Current-like “Communicated to Death” isn’t far behind, nor is the moody Iggy-isms of “New Dark Age”. But the more I listen to this record the more I’m tempted to declare that the OBN III’s are the stuff of truly classic punk imbued with the vitality of the here and now, which means this gets my highest recommendation.

For many the concept of pop music is synonymous with hit singles, constant radio play and some aspect of celebrity. And this is certainly the dominant public role of pop, as a marketplace driven thing that weaves into the culture and enters the consciousness of individuals in ways far beyond the realm of personal choice: blasted over the public address systems in sports arenas or used on television as bumpers to commercial breaks as those same sporting events are transmitted to millions; used in trailers to movies where the actual song will never actually appear; and playing over the radio in the drug store while standing in line to buy cold medicine. This can be summed up as the transmission of pop songs as a sort of musical manifestation of a language virus as proposed by writer William S. Burroughs. It’s a concept that can actually be somewhat interesting from a distance but is assuredly less so after being broadsided by the (sorta intrinsic) banality of Katy Perry for the sixth time in one calendar day. To put a fine point on it, this isn’t the realm of musical discourse that appeals to me; I’m far more interested in subterranean pop, a concept first exposed to me through the early fanzine rumblings of a Pacific Northwest concern that eventually became known as the record label Sub Pop. Up to that point, as a young rockist lad I’d superficially identified the concept of pop as simply the enemy. And it was a long time before I truly shook off the bias against pop as form; for years I denigrated Motown slickness as inferior to the earthiness of Stax for just one example. Actually listening to a grip of Motown stuff outside the typical golden oldies radio rotation helped hip me to the reality of pop as an actual highly adaptable style and not just a signifier of chart success. Buddy Holly, Beatles, Beach Boys and Bowie helped out as well. Since the dawn of the 1980s there has been a fairly well documented pop underground birthed from the comely loins of post-punk as inseminated by the liberating ethos of DIY, and while this global scene has ebbed and flowed in both prolificacy and critical favor over the years, it’s always been a true alternative to the increasingly vapid and coldly corporate flavors of the pop mainstream. Right now subterranean pop, if not experiencing a boom, does seem to be in a fairly fertile, healthy period, and one example would be Oakland CA’s Shannon and the Clams. Fronted by Shannon Shaw, a name/voice some will recognize from participation in excellent fellow Oaktown residents Hunx and His Punx, the Clams are a boldly backward-looking proposition. They could even be described as retro, a term I normally employ as a negative. But the pop playground is quite receptive to the concept of tackling older, outmoded sensibilities and revitalizing them as new while never denying (and often celebrating) the appropriation; Adele, Neko Case and US. Girls are three wildly divergent examples of this practice (both in terms of style and popularity) that just happen to share the same gender as Ms. Shaw. So if Shannon and the Clams are retro they are shrewdly so, and the cut of their jib encompasses a limited base that still provides a plurality of possibilities, specifically pre-Beatles American pop and rock. On the Clams’ debut I WANNA GO HOME this meant a big dish of trashy rockabilly, some unabashedly punk moves lifted from no earlier than the Carter Administration and the sort of urban greaser vibes that still give Lou Reed a tentpole in his Speedos to this very day. No need for Viagra with that guy. Just ask Laurie. But on SLEEP TALK, last year’s exceptional sophomore effort, the Clams retain those elements and add Spector-esque girl group gestures and lightly applied doo wop nods to the equation. And it’s a good, spicy stew, opening with “Baby Don’t Do it”’s “My Boyfriend’s Back”-style handclaps and glorious echo-laden production, the whole thing lovingly screaming BACK TO MONO.  Now lots of folks will hear this record’s production and consider it affected. That’s simply a miscalculation inspired by hearing too much contempo radio pabulum. Just because Shannon and the Clams choose to eschew the gloss of tech in the delivery of their songs doesn’t mean their work is mannered or inscrutable in a present-day context. Frankly, SLEEP TALK is drenched with analog warmth that serves as an antidote to the sterility that often exudes from the digital realm. The real growing quality on this LP has thus far been its applications of not just doo wop but also the flashes of throwaway teenage trash from an era when rock ‘n’ roll held no real cultural capital. Specifically, I’m thinking of “The Cult Song”, with its growling “unga-bunga”-style vocal hi-jinks. And there are plenty of prickly pop confections on display throughout SLEEP TALK, but I also like how they’ve enhanced the ‘70s punk angle. On I WANNA GO HOME these motions sorta registered as indebted to The Rezillos (which is cool), but on this record's “King of the Sea” they inch toward the heaving worthiness of The Bags or even fellow Bay area residents The Avengers, the song forming a nice punkoid combo punch with the Mary Monday-esque “Toxic Revenge”. To sum up, I don’t have a problem with Best Coast working with Jon Brion; in fact I’m curious to hear what they come up with. But the idea of their artistic union just doesn’t stoke my coals like the unrefined charms of Shannon and the Clams, and I’d love to see Shaw and crew head out on a nice nationwide tour with Mark Sultan preaching the gospel of doo wop & girl group’s eternal disposability.