Friday, March 9, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 3/9/12 - Girls and The Faith

At the moment quite a few bees are all abuzz over the big strides, leaps even, that San Fran’s Christopher Owens-led Girls has made from Album, their exceptional ’09 debut, to the freshly released Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and I can understand the hubbub. Album was a breath of relatively basic if extremely well written and delivered guitar-pop air, holding undisguised nods toward Beach Boys, Spector, Costello and even My Bloody Valentine. To be blunt, it was just swell to hear some new music so openly tackle such a classique form while also being boldly contemporary in personality; thusly Girls sounded old yet remarkably up-to-date simultaneously.

But guitar-pop isn’t really a genre that lends itself to longevity or even a prolific discography; Jersey’s kings of post-Velvet’s stun-strum The Feelies have only managed five full-lengths in thirty-plus years (yes, with a twenty year hiatus thrown in). It can indeed be great when bands adopt a stubborn/hard-line stance to the often exultant parameters of the guit-pop style, but an undeniably more sensible stance for working musicians to take is to open up and expand a bit (or a lot) beyond the basic paradigm: hence Yo La Tengo.

With last years’ EP Broken Dreams Club Owens jumped fully into broadening the scope of Girls’ sound. Just as smartly, he didn’t betray his initial template with those long six songs, and with this confidently ambitious sophomore effort he still possesses a loose grasp upon the style that bore the fruit of his earliest expression. The strategic use of horns and Owens’ vocal mannerisms pointed Broken Dreams Club toward an intersection of Beirut and Bright Eyes, and that wasn’t a bad place to be (not at all), but Father, Son, Holy Ghost is strikingly bold in the span of its integrated influence.

“Honey Bunny”, the two and a half minutes of Spector-esque jangle that opens the album, is noteworthy not only for its individual qualities, but additionally for how it differs from the rest of the record, being a succinct bit of pop exuberance that contrasts sharply with much of the expansiveness that follows.

A lot of noise has been made over how Father’s large, methodical production canvas and the layered adornments that it occasionally flaunts are in direct reference to the Floydian ‘70s. Well, sure. That ‘70s influence is surely part of what makes this 2nd Girls record such a bold stroke of sonic flair. But that decade, namely Costello again, was part of Girls’ make-up kit from the start, and it’s not the only card he’s holding.

On Father Owens’ gleans, possibly in some cases unconsciously, from a wide variety of sources spanning over thirty years of pop/rock history; hints of Neil Young, Jonathan Richman, Dinosaur Jr. and Teenage Fanclub all assert themselves in the mix. Sure, “Vomit”, the first “single” from the record, can be directly connected to Pink Floyd’s early ‘70s studio exploits, complete with gospel-oid diva vox, but (to my ears anyway) it also feels just as indebted to ‘90s Flaming Lips (and yeah, I do realize the Lips were/are deeply influenced by the Floyd, oh yes indeedy).

Additionally, “Die” is a wah-wahed-out hard-rocking throttle (the Deep Purple comparison is apt), but it’s also screwy enough to register more like a ‘90s indie-rock update/subversion/commentary upon ‘70s heavy-rock dynamics (dude). But these ‘70s/’90s juxtapositions, while quite prevalent on Father don’t really feel dominant. Other vibes sneak in; the opening of “My Ma” directly quotes a Mission Of Burma song (maybe by total coincidence) and whole big hunks of the record feel descended from the ranks of the sharply-dressed early-‘80s singer-songwriters. Again, this is a very post-Costello state of affairs; “Love Like a River” actually sounds more than a little like early Squeeze having a blue-eyed soul moment. And that’s not something I’d like to see become a habit, but it goes down okay in this instance.

While it includes a small handful of ringers (“Honey Bunny”, My Ma”, “Vomit” and most def the Jon Richman slow dancing with Randy Newman closer “Jamie Marie”) Father, Son, Holy Ghost is the type of record that is destined to be embraced by large numbers of listeners, but for vastly different reasons. Some will clutch a blatantly accessible, electric piano driven pop confection like “Magic” to their hearts and others will be drawn to the more misshapen yet still approachable weirdness of “Just a Song”.

So this isn’t a perfect record, but I’m really impressed with how Owens’ songwriting prowess and the group’s talent as players succeeds at reigning in his diverse textural and stylistic interests, so that the LP, alternately smooth, hard, heavy and light, also resists being categorized as deeply flawed or even unfocused, particularly in the harsh light of the dreaded sophomore slump. Father, Son, Holy Ghost is loaded with fine moments, and while I’m still undecided on the tally of its long-range worth it is most assuredly a keeper.

As Void’s legend has grown over the years into something close to biblical proportions, The Faith’s reputation has suffered somewhat. I feel confident this is a just a temporary situation, and that a tide of deserved esteem regarding the band will soon reassert itself, for I can still clearly recall the collective anticipation on a drive home with friends from Fairfax, VA way back in ’89, Subject To Change and Faith/Void having been freshly purchased, understanding that a couple simple spins upon the trusty turntable were going to significantly deepen and adjust perspectives while solidifying a whole lot of punk rock connections.

As a “second-generation” DC band (though very much an integral part of the original ’80-’85 wave) The Faith featured members of The Untouchables (Alec MacKaye and Eddie Janney) and State Of Alert (Michael Hampton and Ivor Hanson), two of the groups upon which the whole initial Dischord impetus/ethos was founded. Post ’83 break-up, members of Faith went on to fortify such important DC units as Embrace, Rites Of Spring, Ignition, One Last Wish, Happy Go Licky and The Warmers. Furthermore, in ’89 Minor Threat, while surely important and influential, weren’t quite as monolithic a punk/HC/u-ground presence as they would soon become, Fugazi were just gaining their musical footing, and Ignition, featuring ex-Faith members Alec (Ian’s bro, don’tcha know) and Chris Bald were one of the most impressive, in fact maybe the best, of all the post-Revolution Summer bands, so finally catching up with The Faith in ’89 held something special.

Ultimately, after getting well acquainted with both records it was driven home with direct clarity just how key the band was at ushering in stronger songwriting, an increased melodic sensibility that did nothing to weaken the music’s firepower, a far less formulaic rigidity coupled with improved dynamics, and lastly a broadened lyrical scope delivered through Alec’s distinct raspy holler. In a nutshell The Faith functioned as the lynchpin band joining first generation harDCore and the subsequent post-HC progressions that rumbled through the District in the later ‘80s and most of the ensuing decade, a connection that reinforces their importance as sorta incalculable and makes the fact that they’ve been persistently slept-on more than a bit bewildering.

So it’s very nice to see Subject To Change Plus First Demo appear as part of Dischord’s recent spate of reissues. Over one year elapsed in the band’s brief but productive lifespan between the recording of this previously unreleased demo material (December ’81) and the 8-song 12” EP Subject To Change in May of ’83, and the difference is substantial. Unsurprisingly, the demo is closer to standard hardcore, though it’s far from generic. In fact, if Faith had called it a day after recording these initial eleven songs, they would still easily be the equal of other 2nd-gen DC cohorts like Deadline and Artificial Peace. But the demo essentially stands as an early run-through of the songs that comprise the band’s side of the Faith/Void split. The May ’82 session that makes up half of that canonical monster is heavier in delivery than the demo material (which is a rougher, with more ragged edges), but the biggest detectible difference is basically an increase in instrumental confidence. If ye practice, ye wilt improve, thou knowest?

If catchy and dexterous, The Faith was also a grouchy, dark hued band, and this found them to be a fitting, distinct contrast for Void. Thurston Moore, a huge fan of the group (his latest solo album Demolished Thoughts is titled after a lyric from “It’s Time”) has mentioned how Faith were in essence really a methodical continuation of the template DCHC style, and that’s right on the money. The eight tracks that make up Subject To Change feature Eddie Janney formerly of The Untouchables on second guitar, and even though it was released after the band’s breakup, this is the stuff that had such a profound impact on the Dischord scene over the following decade.

But please let us linger a bit over the addition of Eddie Janney. In hardcore, unless a band is heading for metal suckdom or they just have terrible songs, adding an additional guitar is pretty much a sure bet, allowing for exploration of melody and opening up the potential for increased instrumental elasticity while sacrificing little if anything in the departments of heaviness and density.

For instance, Minor Threat briefly featured second guitarist Steve Hansgen on Out of Step and Black Flag’s 1982 Demos finds Dez Cadena on rhythm (and is in my estimation one of the greatest of punk rock bootlegs). So to properly absorb the sound of Faith’s growth it’s necessary to begin with the second side of Plus First Demo, which contains the entirety of their inaugural session; next switch to the band’s half of Faith/Void (temporarily resisting the urge to indulge the Void side for kicks. Just control yourself, m’kay?); and then lastly soak up the huge strides and assured finality that is Subject To Change. Approaching their discography in this manner really sheds a fine light on just how talented and groundbreaking Faith actually was, for as detailed above the evidence of their influence is indisputable, their sound having become so seamlessly interwoven into the fabric of Dischordian activities that upon first hearing the music can sound instantly familiar, this fact likely being another attribute in their status as a consistently underappreciated entity.

But instead of ruminating over clues as to why The Faith aren’t as revered as they were roughly twenty years ago, I’ll simply state that knowledge of the band’s oeuvre is a complete necessity in gaining a full-bodied appreciation of early American hardcore. If thou study, thou shalt understand? Capiche?