Musicians have built records from wrecked manifestos for aeons at this point – hell, Woodie Guthrie cut the concept LP Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti in the late 1940s, beating out the self-serious path tread by Phil Ochs, Scritti Politti, Fugazi, and beyond. But few have cobbled together poli-sci bricolage with Ian Svenonius’ relentless scholarship and irony. From the winking early 1990s youth revolution of Nation of Ulysses through The Make-Up’s gospel yeh-yeh, the theoretical self-mocking of his solo David Candy outing, and the stoned socialist fist-pumping of his Weird War, the singer’s made a career of tossed-off hipster affect, dressing up in retro pop clothing to scope style from within. Borne of the underground’s most authenticity-prone era, he’s somehow managed to remain pure persona, a Madonna or Prince-like closed space. Listening to Svenonius coo and shriek and lisp is to hear an entertainer erecting a recursive, ironic shell. Even when he yells, “Make me a feeling man!” (as on the Make-Up’s excellent “Save Yourself”), it sounds like pop’s emotional theater could actually exist in the real world. Any Gen-Xer worth his sneer knows rock music’s a crock of warmed-over id. And Svenonius proselytizes it. On his platters, feelings aren’t so much celebrated or bemoaned as they are confronted for internal paradoxes.
If this all sounds arch on paper, it’s not. At least, not completely. Much like cultural critic/cynic forbears Lester Bangs and Politti’s Green Gartside, Svenonius takes a certain solace in figuring rock’s pathos, raking it over and rending potential evils impotent via deconstruction. He has a gift for straight-faced absurdism, making Music’s Not for Everyone way more gleeful than it has any right to be. Where 2009’s Chain & The Gang debut, the rickety Down with Liberty… Up with Chains! (K), chuckled its way through theses both wonderfully deadpan (rock journ-baiting instaclassic “Interview with the Chain Gang”) and dull (a pile of anti-capitalist rambles), Everyone draws from an already developed essay – specifically, Svenonius’ “On the Misuse of Music” from August 2010’s Vice. Tenets established, he doesn’t have to invent anything here, just offer cheerfully dry eulogies for dead aesthetics and ponder pop music’s more nefarious, narcotic qualities.
That sort of freedom sets Svenonius loose as the most lucid guy in pop’s self-celebrating room. Opener “Why Not?,” with its a litany of indie-tropes, and the dead-eyed lecture masquerading as title track each examine rock music’s alluring abasement with modest arrangements, letting the composition shuffle with crippled will over haphazard grooves. “It’s a Hard, Hard Job (Keeping Everybody High),” almost a worker’s lament from the rock world, posits the musician’s task as pharmaceutical duty in society’s emotional dispensary. Puttering along at a flickering fluorescent light of a tempo, the song features a mournful duet with an anonymous female (though likely semi-famous one – his collective features a whole constellation of Pacific Northwest notables, including members of Dub Narcotic, Saturday Looks Good To Me, and Old Time Relijun). As an investigation of independent music’s psyche, “Not Good Enough,” packing a jumped up melody and tough love refrain, is Svenonius at his best and brashest, wielding an ego-frying brio.
The record wobbles, of course, and dips come mostly when it slips too far into the underground (i.e. “Detroit Music,” a two-part garage riff dump and tutorial for starting a Detroit rock band) or lays back on old ideas. Between rote class-commentary like “(I’ve Got) Privilege” and multiple variations on “Why Not?,” as well as “Not Good Enough,” Everyone edges oddly close to a straight-up dearth of new ideas. But when he’s on, Svenonius still probes like no one else, spinning his fresher gambits with an unflappable wit belying the resigned, cockeyed gaze he’s lately thrown at his day job.
Chain & The Gang may be a smoother cup of coffee than his last few bands, but the man can still work a meta mental-jolt like no other. At its best, Music’s Not For Everyone documents what makes Svenonius such a valuable part of our landscape. However well listeners think he pulls it off, they’re not likely to find another record so relentlessly engaged with its time or so obscurely concerned with the future of culture elsewhere in 2011’s oncoming deluge.Visit: Chain & The Gang | K Records
Purchase: Insound | eMusic