Friday, June 8, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 6/8/12 - Public Image Ltd and Grass Widow

By its very title, This is PiL, the first studio album in over two decades from John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols’ post-punk entity effectively becomes a state-of-the-band address. While nodding superficially at times toward the unkempt wilds of Public Image Ltd’s groundbreaking early work, there is far too much of the Lydon-dominated calculation and missteps that unfortunately defined the group’s later material.
Some will immediately balk that Public Image Ltd has always been John Lydon’s band, and in a sense that’s very true. But on their initial three studio albums, they operated as a real band not in the democratic sense but in the undeniable reality that a gang of immensely talented musicians were butting up against each other and creating something huge.
John Lydon, guitarist Keith Levene bassist Jah Wobble and drummer Jim Miller conjured up First Issue in December of 1978, an exceptional debut album and a bold maneuver in the development of post-punk. This was followed up less than a year later with Metal Box aka Second Edition, recorded by Lydon, Levene, Wobble and a shifting lineup of drummers, and it stands as not only the finest release in the oeuvre of Public Image Ltd, but also one of the truly masterful post-punk albums.
Following this Wobble was out, drummer Martin Adkins was in, and instead of following a route of refinement, the group came up with one of the more uncompromising records ever released by a major label, which isn’t to insinuate that their first two were mellow going. What made The Flowers of Romance so fascinating was how it largely made no attempt to replace the gap left by Wobble; the group essentially shifted in focus from one of the darkest manifestations of post-punk’s dub-reggae influence into an equally foreboding atmosphere of rhythmic experimentation that was very conversant with simultaneous expressions emanating from the industrial music scene.
Simply put, these three records cohere into an astonishing achievement, and it’s somewhat of a drag to find people underestimating them in the here and now, either because their vast influence has somewhat dulled the cumulative effect (though in my case at least, this hasn’t been the case) or due to folks’ aversion to Lydon’s persona and his later, lesser work subconsciously sabotaging their assessment of PiL’s most crucial documents.
On previous occasions I’ve likened my lingering reaction upon discovery of PiL’s early stuff to the impression of younger associates after they were first introduced to Radiohead. While older listeners more up to speed with dub, Can/Krautrock and experimental music in general were expectedly a bit (or a lot) more measured in their appreciation of Public Image’s first few records, for the fresh ears of me and others, they really sounded like something new under the sun. And please keep in mind that in my case the early PiL records were being digested simultaneous to hearing their later LPs like Album and Happy?
After The Flowers of Romance, the band basically exploded, with allegedly stolen master tapes resulting in the Levene-instigated The Commercial Zone bootleg LP, a frankly underwhelming record matched only by its legit counterpart This Is What You Want…This Is What You Get. Adkins remained as drummer, but it was increasingly clear that Public Image Ltd was now Lydon’s show from top to bottom.
It was this period that found the man’s attempted piss-take “This Is Not a Love Song” becoming his biggest chart single to date (#5 UK), an occurrence that’s perhaps indicative of the point where he began replacing the musically challenging with the merely vitriolic. From the point of First Issue, Lydon had made sure to mix his disgust with true antagonism (see “Religion I” and “Religion II”) and the presence of Levene and Wobble pushed it all very far into the deep sonic weeds.
This Is What You Want…This Is What You Get effectively ended Public Image Ltd as a band, but the nadir was the live record Live in Tokyo; as problematic as the group’s rather obscure ’79 live dip Paris au Printemps was, that LP’s contents simply blew the doors off of the blandness of Tokyo’s session-musician plagued undermining of earlier vital material.
So if the contents of Album were an undisguised move into pop territory, it was all much easier to swallow than the often blatant missteps of the prior two records. Plus, Album was undeniably aided by the production presence of Bill Laswell, who brought in a bunch of creative ringers to sessioneer and effectively stifle the genericism proffered by Live in Tokyo; if Lydon no longer desired a band dynamic, it certainly helped to stock the studio with names like Tony Williams, Ginger Baker, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bernie Worrell and Malachi Favors.
But his subsequent records, if created with a pretense of a working band, were all clearly situations where Lydon called the shots, and from inside the pop realm they were a story of diminishing returns, effectively ending with PiL’s studio low point, 1992’s That What Is Not. A few live records have come out since, but I honestly didn’t think I’d ever encounter another PiL studio release.
But here is This is PiL, and beforehand, being unable to do otherwise, I braced myself for the worst. And the opening title track still confounded me with the sheer level of its wrongheadedness. If “This is PiL” seems intended as a hearkening back to such early tracks as “Theme” and “Public Image”, it flounders threefold; the declamatory nature of Lydon’s early vocals benefited from being somewhat sparse, this sparseness was aided by the considerable levels of musicianship that surrounded him, and lastly his lyrics contained varying amounts of substantive content.
“This is PiL” is instead burdened by Lydon’s voice overstaying its welcome; it’s weakened further by a musical bed that’s uninspiring, and ultimately ruined by a lyrical sentiment that’s simply banal. Twenty years out of the studio and the best Lydon can come up with for an opening salvo is to incessantly tell us that this is indeed PiL (alternately spelled out or spoken as the word “pill”, maybe the most surprising aspect of the song), and that we’re “entering a PiL zone”.
Actually, that last bit sheds some strong light upon where Lydon’s inspiration, at least on this track, is derived; in ’82, shortly before it all hit the fan, PiL announced the imminent release of an EP to be titled You Are Now Entering a Commercial Zone. Please couple this informational tidbit with the return of Lydon’s proclivity from the same era to specifically inform the listener as to what they were or were not getting: this is not a love song, this is what you want, this is what you get, and now this is PiL.
It was easy to predict that our man would eschew jumping back into the dangerous waters of the group’s early material, but it’s disappointing that Lydon lacked the perception to avoid returning to the period immediately after Levene’s departure, when the music attributed to the group was at close to its lowest ebb.
Thankfully This is PiL improves somewhat from its ill-conceived start, largely because it doesn’t have much other choice. But the record is a study in often erratic ups and downs, and yet is also burdened by its leader’s desire to play it safe far too frequently. The lilting reggae of “One Drop” ends better than it starts, but it’s not very inspiring to hear Lydon in this mode, even after an absence of twenty years.
But the better tracks here, “Deeper Water”, “I Must Be Dreaming”, “The Room I Am In”, “Fool”, all display a desire to make an album of real value, and that’s commendable. Yet good intentions do not a great, or in this case even a very good, album make. This is to say that This is PiL’s is simply undone by too much subpar material.
John Lydon is back and those that deeply love him may find the contents of this LP to be enough. Those who feel the ball was fumbled after The Flowers of Romance should proceed with extreme caution.

Those with an unscratchable itch for stripped-down yet pop-savvy post-punk should give San Francisco’s Grass Widow a try. Their latest record Internal Logic hits upon many of that sub-genre’s best elements, all without being the slightest bit overbearing about the whole endeavor.
Grass Widow has arrived at their third full length in an admirable, tired-and-true manner; via gigs, practice, patience, networking and diligence. Debuting in ’09 with a self-titled 12-inch on the Captured Tracks label and a self-titled full-length on the Make A Mess imprint, they’d been playing shows from at least two years previous to those releases, as is evidenced by a demo CD-R that’s recently been discussed on the interwebs.
It should never be understated that one of the crucial factors in a band’s formative period is simply not being in a hurry. Far too many groups have let impatience squander their potential as manifested through the booking of studio time after just a few uncommonly smooth practices. And others have been given fatal advice by spurious third parties less interested in quality music than in the potential for profit.
Thankfully Grass Widow comes from a proudly DIY place. One listen to the angular, post-punk derived sound of those first two records and it’s clear that Hannah Lew, Lillian Marling and Raven Mahon march to the beat of their own drummer. This isn’t to imply the band don’t give off the vibes of precedent; upon first hearing them I heard the shaping influence of the UK’s unbeatable Rough Trade warriors The Raincoats filtered perhaps through some of the righteous ‘90s rocking of Washington DC’s underappreciated Slant 6.
Some of it was a trio thing, and much of it was the immediate feeling that Grass Widow didn’t have any qualms about their femininity. So it was no surprise that the band’s 2010 follow-up LP was on Kill Rock Stars, a label that since their ’91 inception has proven to be one of the strongest outlets for contemporary women musicians. And Past Time was a tangible advance in both songwriting and in execution.
To their credit, Grass Widow don’t make things easy for themselves; while never getting wonkily progged-out, their music undeniably possessed a palpable riffy complexity, and when coupled with the nature of trio rock (where nobody can hide, because everybody’s integral to the music’s success) they made it clear they weren’t just fooling around. Unlike the appealing shambolic aura of The Vivian Girls’ early stuff, Grass Widow’s music oozed like the product of a band that actually got a big kick out of practice.
If those ’09 records still featured an attractive hint of nervousness in the band’s delivery, it was gone by the very impressive Past Time; no sophomore slump for these three. And their new record Internal Logic posits that Grass Widow could easily become one of our best contemporary bands simply by emitting nary a trace of nonsense and getting right down onto tape and getting heard.
If Past Time was a record about growth, then Internal Logic is about boldness. It’s most immediately engaging quality (beyond the sheer strength of songwriting of course), is how they take a form of skeletal post-punk that’s often defined as a reaction against “pop” sensibilities and imbue it with a fully formed production sound that doesn’t detract in the slightest from the record’s heft. This is achieved mainly due to Grass Widow’s decision to not sacrifice instrumental muscularity. In other words, they haven’t forgotten they’re a rock band.
But all three members are strong of voice, and as their discography has progressed it’s been quite a gas to hear them harmonize; it’s this pop aspect of their sound that leads me to think they could come up with something comparable to The Raincoats’ third LP Moving. But Internal Logic is also a third album, and it’s become apparent that Grass Widow, unlike many of their post-punk predecessors (and I’m not referring to The Raincoats with the following) actually really enjoy what they sound like. Instead of bailing on it as they became more instrumentally adept and confident, they’ve instead honed their music’s considerable qualities through superb judgment into something exceptional.
For those already familiar with the band, the two most notable tracks on Internal Logic will be “A Light in the Static”, which is 1:30 of unexpected Spanish guitar, and the album’s solo piano outro “Response To Photographs. While they do much to broaden Grass Widow’s palate, they also serve as something of a red herring, for the LP’s real strides come from within territory already established; opener “Goldilocks Zone” runs those splendid harmonies through a noticeably Bratmobile-like zone.
But that’s just for starters. “Hang Around” features some gradually grabbing guitar work, and “Under the Atmosphere” is a surprisingly pretty tune that’s antagonized by tough instrumentation. And longer tracks like “Spock on MUNI” and “Whistling in the Dark” provide platforms for every instrument to shine, particularly the bass, which alternates expertly between rhythm and melody, and the drumming, which is precise but never predictable.
The significance of Spanish guitar on Internal Logic can be stretched a bit and compared to the classical guitar included on Minutemen’s masterpiece Double Nickels on the Dime. Some might find this contrast specious, but for every obvious difference there is a similarity; both are trios, both this and Double Nickels are third proper full-lengths, and like those Pedro dudes, Grass Widow are highly influenced by Brit post-punk. Hell, these gals even covered Wire’s “Mannequin” on their “Milo Minute” 7-inch from last year, and that song’s long been a staple of Mike Watt’s set-lists, even getting recorded by Firehose.
But I don’t want to push the issue too much. Unlike Double Nickels on the Dime, Internal Logic isn’t a masterpiece, and it’s somewhat imperfect. But its main problem is ultimately a minor quibble, specifically the brevity of the LP; two years in the making and the album is shy of half an hour, retreading both “Milo Minute and “Disappearing Industries” from singles. Sure, it’s always preferable for a release to leave listeners wanting more instead of wishing they’d gotten less, and a lean, quick record is very securely in Grass Widow’s M.O. However, it would frankly be nice to see them stretch out and away from the expected a bit.
But one of the most pleasant extra-musical aspects of Grass Widow’s recent development is how they have retained a deep sense of that DIY spirit by releasing Internal Logic on their own HLR label. It’s not only reflective of the band’s sense of scale and their preference for artistic control over fleeting notoriety, but it’s also indicative of a recent spike in artists electing to not just remain with indies, but in many cases taking the initiative to actually coordinate the release of their own product, a trend that I can wholeheartedly cheer.
The above comparisons between Grass Widow and The Raincoats were certainly aided by seeing them play with that legendary Brit band in Washington DC last year, and indeed some might complain that the two bands display too few overt similarities to make the connection. I disagree; to these ears it seems clear that Grass Widow fully understand that when drawing upon the template of the truly groundbreaking, the sincerely influential is antithetical to the spoils produced by the rote copyist.
Again, Grass Widow is scaled differently than The Raincoats (or for that matter, Minutemen), being a band whose best qualities grow with time well spent. All their records are worth owning, but Internal Logic is the most fully formed to date, and its running-time posits that more is to come.