Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » January
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When you enter the disco, tones that took you to honkey tonks become metallic slivers, the future has arrived, and it’s less sonically dense. Music contains a visual imprint in it, to listen is to see and funk or rock actuate the same topographies in our ears’ eyes while disco began music’s movement towards a more futurist imagery. Techno doesn’t usually take us to the same places visually that rock ‘n roll does: can you imagine a rock band capable of the same synthetic paradises as Drexeyia or Kraftwerk? But !!! make dance music with only the eyes of a rock band. Their music contains a body too, and it wants you on the dance floor. It’s here we first encounter the schism separating disco from it’s predecessors: disco puts the body before the band. Rock is, at heart, a music focused on the stage or the spectacle, while techno is music empowering the listener. It’s a schism bands like Liquid Liquid or LSG have explored, prefering their tones to dwell in the imagery of rock’s basements while pushing the body towards liberation.

Almost 20 years later with the release of Strange Weather, Isn’t It?​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​, Brooklyn-ites !!! have picked up on LSG’s thread after their initial 12″s could have been mistaken for Liquid Liquid tracks. What’s driven !!! hasn’t been lyricism, experimentation, or even originality. Rather it’s that they manage to cram into the vaunted band-spotlight the freedom of the dance floor. This is probably one of the few groups that are so much fun to see, you might not even notice they’re on stage.  They’re coercive, dropping techno feats into the imagery of rock,  from “AM/FM’s” opening chords to the static beats starting “The Most Certain Sure.” The build of the song, the drop, the rewind, are all dance floor exploits catapulted towards us in punk rags. This is a communal archive of moves set on stages which punk and emo built. It’s a music making you feel your body out there, dancing all through the ear.

The energy of the music aside, this is !!!’s most pop album. “Jamie My Intentions Are Bass” has a little moment of Beatles build. “Steady As the Sidewalks Crack” begins a fairly typical song before it returns to the club, wanders through a sax solo, and even has lovely guitar bridges.

It might be this combination that makes so many of the songs on this album work. All the little accents from deep house (the back up singers, the drums, the synths) are able to weld themselves with the maudlin moments of major pop bands. !!! have set their goal to never sway from the undulations of movement. This is a music that rewards the body, but it does so without requiring a previous consumption of the average danceteria’s goods.

Strange Weather, Isn’t It?​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ finds the band in fine form​. It’s an album that pushes the dancefloor up into your favorite indie pop cliches. That said, “Jump Back” sounds like an IDM fetishist remembering Joy Division, and the album still contains enough stylistic leaps to keep you on your feat.

This is a band that doesn’t really seem to care about polished, well written material. It’s hard not to feel !!! is like The Who; they’re the idiots of the scene, capable of getting heroically wasted. As the buffoons, everyone knows they’re a lot of fun. But the jester breaks the shackles of seriousness and enjoys the freedom of play. Even song titles bear little effort to the pretensions of seriousness. They sound like really bad jokes. Part of !!!’s appeal is they don’t want to be a great band. Consequences have been suspended, almost nothing really means anything as long as they play.

On Justin Townes Earle’s fourth release, Harlem River Blues, the songwriter’s more than hit his stride. The concise, 31-minute album adroitly blends Earle’s experiences and musical background with themes connecting personal thoughts and a focus on the American terrain, both interior and exterior.

Recently, Earle moved from his boyhood home in Nashville – he grew up at the center of country music, as well as in the shadow of his famous father, Steve Earle – to New York City. The juxtapositions of urban and rural drift through the new material.

The significance of roots is exemplified on the semi-gospel, honky tonkin’ title track, in which Earle sounds eerily like Billy Bragg while singing about a man who decides his destiny – drowning in the Harlem River – rather than wither through another day of drudgery and difficulty. “Good times come and they go, even a good man’ll break,” Earle matter-of-factly intones. “He’ll let his troubles bury him whole even though he knows what’s at stake.” Then a bit of a shift as his declaration continues, “So I’m taking no chances, carrying over while I’m still good in His grace / I’m no fool, Mama, I know the difference between tempting and choosing my fate.” Earle’s backing band keeps a stable soulfulness highlighted by Skylar Wilson’s funky organ, former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell’s electric guitar (he contributes to nearly every cut), and a choir providing a gospel undertow.

The topic of passage through time and place also embody Earle’s restructured take on traditional railroad work songs. The acoustic folk blues of “Workin’ for the MTA” even gets its title, at least partially, from an old Lynyrd Skynyrd song. The piece commences with a low percussion shuffle and upright bass. Earle then begins his tale of familial continuation: the hard-luck narrator relates how his father worked on the trains in Louisiana and now he’s suffering in a similar way while laboring in the uncomfortable subway, hoping for a big payday. As Earle reflectively repeats, “Well, it’s cold in them tunnels today,” his forlorn voice heightened by Josh Hedley’s vaporous fiddle.

During his career Earle has performed with rock groups, bluegrass-oriented outfits, and toured with his father, but who knew he could make a go of it as a rockabilly artist? That’s one impression from listening to the rambunctious “Move Over Mama,” a fun recreation of that famed Sun Records sound, concerning a man who needs more than cooking, cleaning, or talk from his unsympathetic wife. Isbell slips in some rolling electric guitar, but the real action comes from the rhythm section: Bryn Davies’ upright bass and Bryan Owings’ drums replicate the liveliness of D.J. Fontana and Bill Black, who famously backed Elvis Presley. While this is just a taste of early rock’n’roll, it would be interesting to see what might transpire if Earle again tries out this style.

There’s an effective dose of frustration, heartache, and longing that permeates Harlem River Blues. Earle is skilled at perceptively illustrating the sadness of men who pine for lost women, reminisce about former romances or endure long-distance relationships. On mid-tempo country-rocker “Christchurch Woman,” the protagonist hungers for his significant other who used to laugh at his jokes, share in his fondness for a friendly smoke and conversation in a coffee bar. The character admits he may get tired of her in the end, but for now she’s all he wants.

Geography also plays a part in the piano-led ballad “Rogers Park,” set during a solitary winter in the Chicago neighborhood and filled with Springsteen-like physical details. A parallel perspective infuses a traditional country number, “Learning to Cry,” as it evokes Hank Williams or Jimmie Dale Gilmore with its aura of ardor’s warmth turned cold, underscored by steel guitar from Calexico’s Paul Niehaus.

Earle may never escape comparisons to his father or his other namesake, Townes Van Zandt – Arlo Guthrie, Jakob Dylan, and Hank Williams, Jr. have had to deal with son/father associations as well. But with Harlem River Blues, Earle demonstrates a firm understanding of American roots, and a fine-tuned approach to creating his own awareness of time and place.

Trumans Water aren’t exactly revolutionary, but their music has always had the kind of energy that makes it seem as if it could move mountains, part oceans, and if nothing else provoke some serious action in the pit. The band’s 1990s heyday was a time when alternative music was a catch phrase, and anything that seemed boho, grungy, smelly, or sarcastic was lumped into that category. As members came and went, the band started to evolve and so did their overall sound, but not too much. Almost 20 years after their inception, Trumans Water are back with a brand new album called O Zeta Zunis. For older fans who haven’t heard them in awhile, imagine the uncut energy of the old and combine that with a few melodic touches, as if members of Weezer wanted to jam with the band.

O Zeta Zunis is a continuation of the band’s never ending urge to challenge themselves and to see how far they can go. Songs like “Ur-Cod,” “Ammunition,” and “Bev Toxin” each sound like the kind of songs that make concert-goers move frantically and never want to stop. Each effort contains powerful melodies and arrangements exhibiting a care for the music and how much more comfortable the band is in their own collective skin.

When “Greased Water” starts, it almost sound like you’ve entered a Trumans Water jam session with members still tuning their instruments and checking volumes, playing at a slow, down-tempo pace that radiates calm. However, it’s a calm before the storm, and at the fifty-two second mark they’re as raunchy as early Flaming Lips. For the first time on the album, shades of the old Trumans Water begin to show. “Blasphemous Cordialantlers Ride!” could have been a random piece of audio pulled from any moment in the studio when these guys were messing around, pounding their guitars with drum sticks and not going anywhere. But it almost sounds like Indian classical music, just add a sarod or sarangi.

What does it mean? The answer’s unknown, and for the group that’s alright. Outside of challenging themselves with a new set of songs, they’re more than willing to go back and forth between highly polished compositions with hit potential (well, college radio hit potential) and complete bursts of mindless noise also working as segue ways from one point of the album to the next. “5-7-10 Split” could have easily been taken from the Mudhoney vaults, with the kind of guitar strength that would make Steve Turner proud. Moving into a Melvins-like dirge with “You Live Out Loud” seems to show how much living in the Pacific Northwest has influenced Trumans Water’s sound.

In other words, O Zeta Zunis is indeed a Trumans Water album and a welcome addition to their discography. If it’s been a while since you’ve heard them, you’ll like what they’ve become. It’s not the Trumans Water of yesteryear, but they haven’t forgotten their roots either. As for memorable verses and choruses, if you can figure them out, more power to you.

Nathan Williams is Wavves. And depending on what you know about Williams and/or Wavves, that sentence can be taken two different ways. For listeners just discovering the scrappy noise-pop band, it’s educational – an alert to the fact that Wavves is essentially just one person. For most everyone else though, it’s a redundantly-obvious statement. Of course, Nathan Williams is Wavves. He and his band make blog headlines all the time with one name often standing in for the other.

Wavves is Nathan Williams, so much so the music can sometimes suffer. Even for as much as I enjoy the bulk of his newest release, King of the Beach, it’s sometimes hard to separate the songs from the easy-going, pot-smoking target that Williams has become in the media.

In the two years since releasing his self-titled debut (Fuck It Tapes/Woodsist), Williams accumulated a lifetime’s worth of praise, derision, and drama. A quick read of the Wavves Wikipedia page provides all the details – the Pitchfork hype, the onstage breakdowns, the alcoholism, the band break-up, and now, the redemption album.

What’s interesting is that for as much as King of the Beach is going to expand the band’s fan base, it really isn’t a great album. Of its 12 tracks, there are a few real rockers, a pair of ethereal jams, a throwaway take or two, and some other songs that just won’t see too much play.

At first listen, it doesn’t even matter that Williams and crew (now former members of Jay Reatard’s band) have scaled back the noise. That’s what attracted me and likely many others to the band’s debut and its 2009 follow-up, Wavvves (Fat Possum). For all the forward momentum the album begins with, the second half of King of the Beach just meanders.

From the opening title track through the first few songs, King of the Beach seems like it’s going to be as upbeat and enjoyable a listen as Williams’ girlfriend’s album – Bethany Cosentino’s Crazy For You, which her band, Best Coast, released a week prior to this disc.

Both “Super Soaker” and “Idiot” expand the opening track’s beach theme, both musically and lyrically, with the fourth track, “When Will You Come,” serving as a sort of a breather. For as un-Wavves as the jangly doo-wop experiment sounds, it does serve as a nice respite; a little break before we’re back into the pop-punk of “Post Acid.”

If King of the Beach had ended with “Take on the World,” the album’s sixth track, Williams would have had a hell of an EP. The songs are catchier than anything Wavves has put out before, due largely to slick production and Williams’ decision to scale back the noise.

Of those first six songs, all are under three-minutes long. Of the second six songs, all but one are over three-minutes long – which, in and of itself, doesn’t really mean anything. But, along with the switch in song lengths, the second half of the album brings another slow, echo-laden experiment as well as the track “Convertible Balloon,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on Ween’s Chocolate and Cheese. However, this is not Ween’s Chocolate and Cheese, making the track something of an oddity.

Were there more songs like “Idiot,” “Post Acid,” and “Take on the World,” the album might actually live up to its boast about being king. Williams, however, is probably too neurotic for that to happen, which is part of the band’s odd charm.

I mentioned earlier that it’s hard to separate Williams from his songs when listening to the Wavves’ music. Somehow, that’s positively affected my listening experience of King of the Beach. Wavves wouldn’t be the same without all the cynical snark and self-deprecation. If the lyrics were a match for the upbeat bounce and bubblegum harmonies, King of the Beach would be a much different listen. Probably a worse one. Though not a great album, there are some solid songs here.

In briefly talking to just about anyone hailing from a Midwestern city, there’s a sense that accomplishments have been achieved through serendipitous occurrences, as opposed to being based on authentic talent. For those raised here, that’s the norm. Grandstanding isn’t good for too much apart from seeming like an ass. And even if it was, the act of collecting attention for attention’s sake is still deemed a misstep. It’s obnoxious.

And while Detroit’s The Gories (Dan Kroha, Mick Collins, Peg O’Neill) are obnoxious, there’s still an artfulness to the group’s garage-based caterwauling.

Music and fine art can’t be considered in exactly the same manner. But it’s unquestionable that Midwestern musicians, painters, sculptors, and their ilk aren’t understood in the same way creative types are perceived on the coasts. They’re from the provinces. Commenting on a Chicago Imagist-painter’s death, New York Times critic Roberta Smith goes so far as to figure, “Mr. Paschke was an artist whose contribution to the art of his time was somewhat obscured by his distance from New York.”

During the mid-1980s, The Gories busied themselves mining a similar musical milieu as New York’s The Chesterfield Kings or even London’s Bow Wow Wow, whose “I Want Candy” is built on the same Bo Diddley beat The Gories staked their entire career on. Coupling the band’s Detroit occupancy and its proclivity for music fraught with the right wrong-notes Kroha, Collins and O’Neill knew not to expect the same kind of pay-off as those other ensembles. They didn’t get it, either.

Taking the time to dig up any substantial writing on The Gories isn’t going to yield much more than re-purposed band bios with a bit of added-in garage historicity. Beyond none of that prose being engaging, reducing the band to a place holder in music history disallows the trio from being embraced by a culture that, for whatever reason, has finally realized stripped down rock music isn’t for dullards, perverts, and the unemployable. It’s for anyone with a pulse and a desire to get the bad ju-ju out.

For Bands Only

“Bands Only” is scrawled across a shoddy door in Chicago’s Empty Bottle, leading to a steep flight of steps down to a concrete room (perhaps the site of some bootlegging in decade’s past) and requisite nasty couches. Being a part of underground rock stuffs for the better part of three separate decades, Kroha and Collins seem perfectly at home down there. The bucket of beer probably isn’t a hindrance to the pair’s convivial attitudes. Someone’s bag sits opened on a coffee table with a pair of boxers just laying there, hinting at the fact that there’s no reason to take anything very seriously.

Subsequent to the proper bullshit session, Collins offers up a litany of perspectives pertaining to the art world. He paints (or painted in the past) in addition to performing with an endless procession of bands and producing recordings – there was even talk of his being involved with a Rocket from the Tombs session at some point. But from his candor springs the jovial attitude of a mind supremely engaged with culture on every level. He’s a computer nerd, a comics enthusiast, and aspiring novelist, in addition to interpreting the history of blues-based American music. Theoretical backing for any of that, though, doesn’t seem relevant to him. Nor should it.

The (Supposed) Cultural Vacuum

There wasn’t a tremendous sucking sound resounding from underground music in Reagan’s America. Instead, his presidency overlapped with independent labels in the States and abroad figuring out how to maintain a valid business model while still issuing music detached from Living Colour, the Traveling Wilburys, and INXS. It’s during this time The Gories and a huge number of other groups not centered in Los Angeles or New York were cranking out music some considered unadulterated noise, but still moves listener physically – and mentally? – today.

Publishing We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988–2001, New Bomb Turks’ singer Eric Davidson details his time around garage and punk related acts a decade and change back. If there’s been negative notice shackling the book’s dissemination, it’s scarce. Unfortunately, even a guy from a relatively well regarded, currently non-existent band, doesn’t possess the cultural clout necessary to dispel previously written music histories. Steven Blush’s American Hardcore may have dented the understanding of 1980s music which figures Prince as its towering figure. But there’s still a pervasive description of popular music which moves from punk happening to Nirvana a decade later – both cultural events which unquestionably changed the direction of popular music, but ostensibly serve to neglect the slew of low-key, low-rent bands working between 1984 (the onset of hardcore’s death wheeze) and 1990 (a year before “Punk Broke”).

There’s no way The Gories considered themselves torchbearers of a spirit, helped along by Kim Fowley’s degenerate status, or continued by Cleveland bands dating to the 1970s. So, raving up a garage purposefully sidestepping the Paisley Underground and Pebbles compilations, the occasionally inept trio spurt-out a few chords, worked up some covers, wrote a handful of original songs, and played in front of meager audiences.

It’s The Gories reworking of Suicide’s “Ghost Rider,” the first song on the New York band’s 1977 album, accidentally making these Midwesterners more than even what they collectively realize. In 1986, as Kroha, Collins, and O’Neill were sussing out a sound impacting the next two decades of garage, various underground musics broke off into stoic enclaves, enamored of a narrow period of time. That obviously persists today – when was the last time you saw a local funk band play on the same bill as whatever punkers are kicking around? But for the anonymous trio of Detroiters including a song they enjoyed from some weirdo NY band lauding synthesizers and attitude over guitars wasn’t a statement on the nonsensical cordoning off of music, it was just a good tune to cover.

“It was Mick’s idea to do Suicide – he actually picked a lot of the covers we do,” Kroha says, sitting on a dingy sofa cushion while fiddling with his iPhone, taking its cover off and cleaning the screen. “We were really conscious of not just being garage.”

“I auditioned for the Necros,” Collins pitches in, further cementing The Gories’ weird fence sitting act, as related to hardcore, punk, and its beloved garage. Apparently, during 1983 (or 1984, memories are fuzzy at this point), the Maumee based Touch and Go band were doing a bit on Detroit’s local NPR station, WDET. Collins, up past the point his parents found acceptable, called the station and “started screaming and rambling over the phone.” The Necros were impressed, but due to Collins’ age and it precluding extensive touring, he was turned down for a spot on the mic. That was probably for the best, though.

A few years on, in 1986 as The Gories were soldering together garage stomp, R&B, and punk fervor, C/Z Records released Deep Six, another argument against 1980s music being vapid, Madonna-centric tripe. Chris Hanzsek and Tina Casale, founders of the imprint, drew contributions from an as-of-yet famous Soundgarden, the Melvins, the U-Men, and the ever important Green River. Each of the aforementioned groups can stake some claim on being an extension of punk. But for the most part, there are neither garagey antics present, nor overt nods to a painfully artsy side of the underground. The Gories took care of all that during the three-minute “Ghost Rider.” Of course, that didn’t mean anyone cared.

A Piece of Europe

As with any sort of artistic endeavor not jiving with current trends, The Gories didn’t rack up a huge list of supporters over the few years they were initially in existence. Byron Coley, Forced Exposure honcho and liner-note-writer extraordinaire, commented positively on the band, Kroha and Collins say. Outside of the off-handed mention, though, The Gories were relegated to playing in a musical landscape not yet prepared for troupes of well meaning, if not professional, musicians roving the country’s highway system.

“There was no network for what we were doing,” says Collins. The carved out tour routes that exist today, enabling bands no one needs witness to remain on the road for huge portions of the year, were still being established. Greg Ginn and Black Flag began to figure it out prior to folding in 1986. As an extension of that, Mike Watt jamming econo and his spiritual brethren in rusted out vans solidified approaches to making coast-to-coast musical sojourns. The Gories just didn’t benefit, only performing outside of Detroit a handful of times during the band’s initial run.

Home wasn’t that much better. “There was a scene in Detroit, we just weren’t a part of it,” Collins recalls without dashing anything like emotion on the statement. But if Houseparty, a live document from 1987, ever winds up on a tape deck within earshot, sensing a handful of enthusiastic show-goers along for the band’s set isn’t difficult. “It’s easy to get 20 friends into a house and have it sound crowded,” Kroha says.

With nothing approaching inordinate success at home, The Gories were still able to issue material through France’s New Rose, as well as Germany’s Crypt Records. Meant to work as a tour supporting Outta Here, the trio headed out on a European trip during 1992.

American musicians have a pretty long history of hitting the other side of the Atlantic and garnering a bit of positive notice – Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, countless blues players, Ramblin’ Jack. At the time, though, underground garage work-outs weren’t necessarily in demand. The Gories weren’t known for gazing at the ground while single notes oscillated slightly, mounting a drone and no one looked like they were from Seattle. The trek was still worth the effort.

“We were actually pretty well received [in Europe],” Collins says. “There was a show, though, where only four people showed up.” But that, apparently, was an acceptation. If nothing else, Collins recalls Kroha eating what he believes was a pigeon. “I know a little bit of French,” says Collins. “I think the menu translated to ‘roof rabbit.’” Kroha doesn’t recall that incident, but adds, “I’m the kind of guy that’ll eat anything once.” So maybe.

Not too long after returning from their European vacation and Kroha’s eating contests, The Gories hung it up. Any number of stories can work to conclude why, but the best summation is basically that they didn’t have anything else to say using the perspective which the band was founded on.

If The Gories never issuing new material seems like a downer, at least the ensemble didn’t intend to continue on just to continue on. Of course, considering each band member has subsequently recorded and played with a laundry list of garage related acts (The Dirtbombs, Demolition Doll Roads, Blacktop, ’68 Comeback) makes the sort of logic behind cessation of a career seem forced. But who cares?

With The Gories’ scant back catalog being recycled and reissued a few times, it becomes a bit confusing to figure out what originally appeared where and how a seven-inch was released as late as 1995, if for all intents and purposes the band broke up around 1992. But it’s probably for these reasons the ensemble has been able to resurrect its career for what amounts to shits and giggles. Granted, The Gories dole out what fans want.

“We have a bunch of really good songs that we keep playing,” says Kroha. And getting the chance to perform them in-front of what counts as a new audience has to feel good considering the relative apathy meeting the band during the 1980s and early 1990s.

“It’s like visiting an old lover,” Kroha adds, while verbally feeling out the spate of shows his band’s currently engaged with. And that’s probably true. All involved seem relaxed. There’s no reason to be stressed out. If a song doesn’t work on stage, it doesn’t work. And if a show comes off as hackneyed, each of The Gories’ three members can go home and get back to whatever counts as normal life nowadays.

When asked about being revered retreads, Collins and Kroha weren’t demur – and honestly, the band deserves the broad based positive attention they receive in some shadowy corners of the rock world. It’s been figured before in regards to other acts comprised of avowed music aficionados; The Gories have eclipsed the groups they attempted to hold up as God-like templates.

Young (Salacious) Lesbians

The fervor of collectors translates into album sales, though. For every geek with two copies of the “Nitroglycerine” single, there’s a record store clerk setting up a display to feature I Know You Be Houserockin’ (Crypt, 1994) preceding the band’s local performance.

During October 2010 at The Gories’ two-night stand in Chicago, folks in attendance were as diverse as plentiful. Standing shoulder to shoulder were dudes in King Khan t- shirts, just capacious of reigning in the beer-gut underneath and a few young lesbians, barely toddlers when the first Gories’ CD was released.

Included here could be something about the power of music, The Gories’ indomitable song craft, or its choice selection of covers. But none of that’s the point. Instead, what’s probably important is shows like these count as unlikely scenarios where sport jacked dykes topped off with Doogie Howser haircuts can crash into fat guys drinking cans of High Life and it’s not grounds for a heavy situation.

On the band’s second evening at Chicago’s Empty Bottle, after working through a set of music drawing from just about ever part of its discography, The Gories were slowly pulled back onstage for an encore, summoned by insistent clapping and sundry foot stomping. Returning to the stage, the trio was regaled with a storm of screamed out requests – I’d been yelling “Hidden Charms” for the better part of 20-minutes. Closing with that Willie Dixon via Howlin’ Wolf via Link Wray cover, the band made declarations regarding new not being better or worse than old. Original isn’t always innovative. And persistence doesn’t really get anyone anywhere. It’s all just dumb luck. But when that luck finally hints at some sort of grand reason for persisting, there’s a moment of pleasure, a hidden charm itself.

Photos: Doug Coombe