Monday record review 2/20/2012: "Moustache Eye Patch" by Great Western Plain
It used to be that part of the apprenticeship process—whether it was writing, painting, or playing music—was plain aping: finding something you liked, then trying, often vainly, to reproduce it as accurately as possible. Ninety-nine percent of what emerged, of course, was complete shit—that’s why they call it process—and then on to the next influence.
There are several artists that have gone a great way towards ruining this practice: Bukowski and Pavement spring immediately to mind. There’s plenty to ape in both cases, but what gets lost is the discipline. It sounds odd, I know, but bear with me: Bukowski was a guy who got bombed every night, who blacked out and cranked through fifteen poems he wouldn’t remember writing the next morning every day for forty years. The ones that we read are a tiny slice of what he produced: of the crap he produced, to play percentages / be brutally honest. And Pavement made legions of notebook-slinging, Pynchon-reading kids think that it was easy to fart out nonsequitors genius in their disjointedness, missing the point that the band worked hard throughout. Look to Gary Young’s dismissal, if nothing else: if they were really as slack as the press spun ‘em, they would not have kicked out a guy who lived in a tree and did acid every day for a goddamn year, dig? The problem was that the imitators, in both cases, swiped the poses without reflecting on the process or substance.
I know the members of Great Western Plain. They understand it ain’t worth a hill of beans if there’s no substance underneath. That’s why they have intensely studied the idioms which inform their own listening choices, managing to capture the golden one percent the apprenticeship process begets as their tastes and interests shift. They work, dammit, pounding away at ideas as they come without worrying about a “core audience” or an image or a brand or how to most effectively utilize their Twitter feed /Facebook / whatever to harness the most listeners or any of that non-music bullshit that music has devolved into. And as much as the Internet has made the way we listen to and record music more immediate, the band simply cannot keep up with its steady string of evolving ideas. By the time you see them live, they’re likely to be playing a new batch of stuff. Hüsker Dü was famous for this sort of incessant progression in the ‘80s; so wasBlack Flag. Great Western Plain’s perpetual musical curiosity and intense vetting process make their live sets exciting: get familiar with a record and you can hear what comes next right away. For Great Western Plain, the future is now.
Moustache Eye Patch, their sophomore effort, picks up where 2011’s Noise left off. “Intricate Textures,” the album’s debut track (and first single), acts as a harbinger of what’s to come: a blast of feedback-drenched distorto drone followed by acoustic strumming. Throughout the album, the band walks easily between both extremes, seamlessly mixing and matching bits and pieces from their ever-increasing quiver of tricks with ease. “A Guthrie Tune” would’ve been at home with the best of melodic indie rock circa: mid-‘90s—think Superchunk, Versus, Helium—with rhythmic propulsion driving pure infectious pop chords. “Greenwich” finds the band pushing boundaries, with bassist Mike Powers affecting a drawl over a heavy pop that fragments and rearranges itself into a more jagged and discordant dialect, à la Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 or Polvo. Powers is also at the helm for “Photosynthesis,” in which the band’s patois shifts heavily to Massachusetts as chords dissolve into shards that would make Mission of Burma proud, and his drawl shifts to a Mascisian slur.
Great Western Plain is just as adept at rumination as they are at pogoing. “Three Four,” with guitarist Tim Berrigan on vocal duties, takes a wistful, mournful verse and drenches it in echo and treble before erupting into sheets of feedback so adroit at amplifying both—the wist and the mourn—that the song becomes a puzzle whose unraveling happily bears repeated listens. All the while, Tony Bitetti drums away with power and precision, riding what sounds to be about eight cymbals with as many arms. He’s no slouch at vocals, either: on “Elian Gonzalez” he croons an ode to the onetime Cuban child refugee as he generals the band through an offtime bridge with characteristic ease.
Of course, the band, despite the release of Moustache Eye Patch, is already beyond the album musically. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t check it out, though. Quite the contrary: Great Western Plain’s blueprint of their immediate past becomes a document of how far and fast they travel from record to record—sometimes from show to show. Their ceaseless apprenticeships at a variety of musical altars, musical chops and willingness to take chances in the name of self-betterment, all with a sense of humor, make them a crucial act, both live and on record. My favorite album of 2012 thus far.
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