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Monday record review 4/2/2012: "Inflammable Material" by Stiff Little Fingers

Here’s the thing: I kinda like Hot Topic. In theory, anyway: jeez, if that place had been around when I was in high school, setting myself apart from the real and imagined aggressors in the hallways would have been so much easier. I would have had more time to go out and smash the state or whatever, though at that tender age “smashing the state” probably meant reading a book in a coffeehouse or hoping cops would notice my attempts to ollie curbs so I could proclaim, loudly, that I had been a victim of skate harassment.

But the cops didn’t care was the thing: I’m sure I was so bumbling in my attempts to grind they assumed—correctly—that I was harmless, if they noticed me at all. But the noticing is a key component of the formative days, whether we’re talking pre- or post-Hot Topic. No matter the era, the initial self-awareness yields some sort of reaction, an anti-matter which pushes away from what’s established and into the unknown. More than becoming a part of something, it’s a separation from the established order of things, definition by negation.

The ‘Topic is an early stage of that nowadays. So is nu-metal, so is hip hop, so is Skrillex, etc. It’s easy to get a reaction if that’s all that you’re looking for. But after a point, there’s taking things to the next step, using the initial shock as a springboard.

Alternative Ulster

The whole “punk is dead” argument comes into play more regarding the genre’s origins than the fashion and subculture it spawned. There’s a legitimate case to be made in saying that punk died around 1979, once the first wave started to dry up, break up, or move away from the initial narrow limitations. Not to say I believe any of this stuff, but I get it, and understand when first-wavers try to drive nails into that particular coffin. It happens all over music—there’s the school that says hardcore died in 1984/85, for example. Again, I get it, even if I’m not buying it.

What I am buying is the Stiff Little Fingers. They’re a recent discovery, spawned by pre-internet memories of skate magazines merging with a series of videos by ‘80s pro Jeff Grosso. Back then (and now) Thrasher was the edgy one, what with its great punk and hip-hop coverage. The skaters themselves, though, seemed like they’d make fun of me for not being _________ enough.Transworld was slicker, and accordingly the skaters therein seemed more approachable. After a time, Grosso was featured in both—he had something going on, in other words. I recently stumbled across a series of videos he’s doing, which made me think back to the interviews he did. I remember him talking about Stiff Little Fingers—after all these years!—and tracked ‘em down.

Grosso was right.

Certainly the punk “era” was rife with reasons for railing against the establishment—the socioeconomics on both sides of the pond, certainly, yielded plenty of strife—but a lot of said railing reverted to nothing but pose and aping by within a few years, part and parcel of something small becoming a movement (seriously, teenagers complaining about Reagan’s bad policies? C’mon, dudes!).

Suspect Device

Here in 2012, it’s easy to hear a barely restrained fury in Inflammable Material—the incendiary goings-on in and around Belfast drive the album, still bleeding urgency after all this time. The band’s politics are in no way kneejerk or aware of the “punk” genre—they’re responding to a time and a place in the most honest way possible in songs like “Suspect Device” and “Alternative Ulster.” This is protest music, plain and simple, speaking to the disaffected in a snarl that sounds like common parlance. But there’s joy in there, too—the sudden and unexpected means, perhaps, of self-expression coming together. The raw anger is certainly identifiable in terms of genre, as are some of the tropes—there’s reggae in here à la the Clash, for example, the influence of rockabilly, in-your-face song titles like “I Don’t Like You.”

What’s surprising is how fresh and influential much of this sounds, despite the band’s relative under-the-radar status. It’s easy to hear echoes of Crass in singer Jake Burns’ raspy croak—as well as the hoarse delivery of Frankie Stubbs of Leatherface, commonly thought of as the vocal ground zero for the seemingly endless stable of gruff melodic bands in and around Gainesville, FL. There’s Proletariat in their drums, and more syncopated stop-starts in “Suspect Device” than in any of the other early bands’ stuff. The initial wave becomes the foundation on which the band built their particular take on the time and place, using their unique vision to craft a document that acknowledges the recent past but builds on it, as well.

It’s a neat trick, sounding both familiar and fresh in the context of the day’s heavy hitters, but the Stiff Little Fingers pull it off admirably (both here and in their follow-up “Nobody’s Heroes,” the song Grosso, in his ages-old interview, used to reflect on his skating fame). Despite punk’s protestations, there’s a canon, and these cats deserve to be in it.

—Mike F.

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Monday record review 3/12/2012: Unsane, "Visqueen"

1. In a Las Vegas dive bar on Friday night, Noah and I talked to this guy wearing a Mason hat. I told the guy about my one experience with the group: Rebecca and I went to an open house, and the guy giving the tour wouldn’t look me in the eye when we shook hands.

“You didn’t go back?”

“No,” I told the guy wearing the hat.

“So you quit.”

2. After years of hearing about the man’s work, I finally made my way through some of Cormac McCarthy’s stuff last year. Notice I didn’t say “read.” That’s not the right verb. It’s not light, or, often, pleasurable. It’s a slog. Completely dispelling all ideas of myth, all thoughts and glamour by rubbing the reader’s face in a ridiculous, unsentimental body count, the codified Hollywood system of badges, and white & black horses. There’s a convincing argument to be made that, like Kenneth Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight, the rough ride is inherent: if you want to live what it was like, no easy read will suffice.

Last Man Standing

3. I was so smitten with Unsane’s debut LP—one of Matador’s first handful of releases—that I hung a picture of the band in my high school locker. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I got a chance to see them, except I didn’t: the Middle East had changed their age policy from 19+ to 21+. So, despite driving down to Boston from New Hampshire, I didn’t get a chance to see Unsane play (Terry G went around the corner to TT’s, intent on seeing a show if it killed us, and caught an insane Engine Kid / Crain / Grifters / Codeine show instead). The band, miraculously, was parked in front of the club, so we went to talk to them, kinda hoping they’d invite us in. But they didn’t offer, and we didn’t ask.

4. For years, the production on Unsane albums was—what? Not lo-fi, exactly, but muted in such a way that their sound made sense. Like being covered with a blanket in the back of a car trunk being taken down a bumpy backroad. Vocals were—and are—hoarse but articulate, distant, high-pitched over the band’s no-frills riff din. So the expansion of the sound on Visiqueen, the band’s 2007 album, was a bit surprising. After all, their overall aesthetic hadn’t changed since my high school days. Their b-movie gore branded them visually, and the music fit right in with the look.

But better production values help the band. There’s more space to hear everything that’s happening. Vocally, Chris Spencer is still as pissed off and hoarse as he’s ever been, but his lyrics are more discernible throughout. Everything’s a bit crisper, but still sludgy and chunky.

Against the Grain

5. I didn’t check in with Unsane for years, so, in catching up on their back catalogue, I was surprised to hear slide guitar and harmonica in their work. But, like the enhanced production, it made sense: the band has been doing their thing, visually and musically, for a long time. They’re not interested in jumping trends or kowtowing in any way. The addition of odd, seemingly non-brutal instrumentation is both a “fuck you” to fans who think they have the band pigeonholed, and an extension of their aesthetic: they sing about the miseries of everyday life in the city—heavy a la the best stuff on AmRep, toe to toe with their ‘90s pigfuck peers. What is this kind of music if not an irksome howl? It’s no stretch to call this stuff, with its occasional Western swing, the blues.

6. I buy way too many tee-shirts. Ask my wife: my dresser drawers bulge under the weight of all these shirts I don’t have the days to wear. But even though Unsane’s designs should be right in my wheelhouse—black, sparse—I won’t wear a lot of their designs. Like their new one, in the ubiquitous album release bundle: a meat cleaver. Can I wear a shirt with a cleaver that says Unsane above it? I’m not sure I can pull it off. The Masonic one, though, definitely.

—Mike F.

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Monday record review 2/27/2012: "Four Cornered Night" by Jets to Brazil

Punk dropped. Like fell, from a plane screaming overhead, and when it detonated, the mushroom cloud of sneering attitude blocked out the sun and all its light. Sometimes this was beneficial—the symbolic destruction of everything that came beforehand allowed for a plain, flat playing field, at least for the first little while—but after a point the ground-zero dismissal of everything before D-Day (wherever you place it; whichever side of the argument / ocean you’re on) is just plain ignorant.

I was guilty of it for a time; other people in “the scene” were, too. It’s all part of the process, the rebellion against the foundations and rudiments which gain value upon returning to them.

So maybe, kids of yore, it’s time to return to Jets to Brazil’s Four Cornered Night, a record unfairly maligned by obsessives and fan-boys / gals for not sounding like __________: like singer Blake Schwartzenbach’s late lamented trio Jawbreaker, like the debut JTB rec Orange Rhyming Dictionary.

More than anything in the Schwartzenbach catalogue / canon, the record is maligned for what it’s not, rather than discussed because of what it is. This is due based in large part in his shift from guitar to keys. Lyrically, the same smart, clever ‘tude steeped in nostalgia is apparent throughout. “In the Summer, You Really Know” is indicative of this non/change: balladry masquerading as emo (or is it the other way around), with heartstring-tugging lyrics and gentle arrangements building to a sensitive crescendo. Had the song been guitar-based, it would’ve appeared as the last track of hundreds, if not thousands, of mix tapes.

Pale New Dawn

If the album can be said to suffer, it’s because of its sequencing: the aforementioned “In the Summer” bleeds into the tame, quiet “Empty Picture Frame,” glutting up and bogging down what’s otherwise an up-tempo record. But “Little Light” quickly sets the record straight, with its rimshot beat and pleasant melody—initially, anyway, it feels like a Mentos commercial before the chorus, which is not so heavy as much as it is arranged.

This is the real reason for the shift—and the real reason why “4CN” initially went over so many heads. With the possible exception of “Dear You,” which was more of an overdub record than one concerned with arrangement; Four Cornered Night was, up to that point, the most complex display of Blake Schwartzenbach’s songwriting chops. In the past (and even recently, with Thorns of Life and Forgetters), the loud-soft bombast was a common trope of Jawbreaker / Jets songs—a good trick, one Blake made work countless times. The added emphasis on piano—and on guitar in the background—caused a shift of both songwriting and production style.

Little Light

J. Robbins was, and is, an excellent producer, up to the task of using the studio as an instrument (what was the name of that band that did that? You know, before Year Zero? What were they called again? I can’t remember, man). Take “Pale New Dawn” as an example: sure, there’s bombast in the back, during the chorus, but in previous incarnations—“rock band” instead of “songwriter,” say—there would have been nothing but. Nor would the bass during the bridge be so prominent: they give you a food stamp for the air-sucking wound in your chest. Nor strings after that part, before the emphasis shifts back to the guitar before the outro, where backing vocals are added to the song’s weird drawly Dylan rip (pre-Year Zero, sorry).

This isn’t the only song on the album which does this—far from it—but it’s the most egregious, the one which teaches you, three tracks in, how to listen to the rest of the record. So get (back) to it: dig the bleed of “Mid-Day Anonymous” into the creepy chorused “*******,” the call-and-response of “Milk and Apples.” It’s the same stuff you loved before, just, you know, different. Especially now that you’re allowed to get around that Year Zero bullshit and admit that the Beatles existed

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Monday record review 2/6/2012: Rudimentary Peni, "Death Church" (1983)

Rudimentary Peni: “Death Church” (1983)

The irony of appreciating crust punk academically is not lost on me. Here, after all, are a bunch of bands striving to smash the state and put the power back in the hands of the people, minus an overarching system…. and the cycle of criticism which we use to comment on and critique their work is that system they’re railing against. But honestly, the example set by Crass, the most significant of those bands, resonates through punk, whether or not you agree with their politics or even like their music. There’s a direct line to be traced from Crass’s ideology—do-it-yourselfers to the extent that they lived in a commune and grew their own food, f’r chrissake—and Fugazi’s, meaning that any number of acolyte post-punks, with their low door prices, benefit shows, and anti-big business record / CD prices, have made the stances and attitudes their own. It’s funny to think that some of those bands did so only because it was hip or trendy or whatever—the blind belief in any system, even one with such good intentions, was and is anathema to the original notion.

Not that, you know, I spend a lot of time listening to Crass. Again, my appreciation for them was, and largely is, academic: those records are hard to listen to. Which I suppose is part of the point: their album Yes Sir, I Will., for example, is a deeply rewarding listen—a concept record expressing their outrage at the way Margaret Thatcher handled the Falkland Islands in the ‘80s. There would be little point in putting out an anti-war record which was easy to listen to. Like Kenneth Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight, the record is both a commentary on the atrocities of a war and a dare: you’re not anti-war? Get through this simulation of one. It extends beyond the war-related specifics to the work at large: Wanna be part of an alternate system? It’s going to be way harder to deal with than what you’re used to, as evidenced by our _________.

So with all this said about the genre and its form-as-function applications, it’s nice to have recently stumbled across Rudimentary Peni, a band whose feet are solidly in the same political ring as Crass and the rest, but whose music manages to transcend some of the arena’s staid musical conventions.

¼ Dead

Sure, a lot of Death Church is ugly—again with form following function—but in addition to the standard sheets of metal-on-metal guitar and cymbals dissolving into a trebly morass, Death Church is driven by the bass playing of Grant Matthews. His lines cuts through the noise and give RP’s music a structure which is often absent in the music of other crust / anarcho- bands. By 1983, San Pedro’s Minutemen were close to their apex—part of their sound, in the words of singer / guitarist D. Boon, was a “political” decision to separate his trebly guitar from bass player Mike Watt’s low end. I don’t know whether or not the Peni folks were aware of the Minutemen, but the modus operandi is similar: by allowing both bass and guitar to be heard on their own, a sort of pocket is formed, in which the vocals are audible, and perhaps more effective as a result.

Crass and their ilk are instantly recognizable visually: their stencils, whether on album covers or subway walls, were effective branding. Similarly, Nick Blinko’s intricate artwork give the band a visual brand, connected to but not exclusively crust / anarcho-by-numbers. The same goes for his lyrics and vocals: he rails against rock stardom and the meat industry—standard stuff, to be sure—but also discusses the schizoaffective disorder which drives his visual and lyrical work.

Vampire State Building

Take “Vampire State Building” as an example. Blinko sings, in his tortured yowl, “What’s that fumbling grotesque over there in a wheelchair / stifled in a straitjacket /self-inflicted safety pin wounds /is it punkoid? / devoid? / schizoid? / mumbling? Vampire state building is crumbling.” As he does so, another voice—more basso, seemingly saner—repeats the shouts. These self-professed “delusions” make the record a challenge: as listeners, aware of his condition, the question of validity comes to the fore: how much of Blinko’s anger is based in reality? How much, then, isn’t? His self-awareness and paranoia become a critique of the genre at large, an invitation implied throughout: we should be questioning rather than simply accepting them. Whether or not the forum is “appropriate,” Rudimentary Peni, like the best art, invites questions and critique, rife with contradictions, pushing you away as they hug you and pull you into their pocket.

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