Northwest Battle of the Bands: Volume Two, Knock You Flat
If you bought the Wailers and Sonics reissues from a couple years back, consider Flash and Crash AND Knock You Flat as the next stumblin' steps into the famed Northwest's "What Once Was" file. Of course with the rock 'n' roll standard produced in the region, your decision ought not be a toughie. Both compilations is "jam" packed with ragged, overdriven white kids gooped up on R&B! Yep, meanin' lots and LOTS of Sonics'-style in-your-face wasters! Hell, even bands which was best known later as pop-kids, like Don & the Goodtimes, turn up the heat! HOOT-HOOT! There's a couple nice surprises too... some rockin' SIKE tracks, AND, on Flash and Crash, the Juveniles' absolutely shreddin' version of Mr. Diddey's signature Bo Diddley, smoked in a way that made even my jaded ears holler! MIKE NIPPER
New York: On the Road '86-'87
1936: The Spanish Revolution
Beneath the wildcat frequency of punk was the righteous indignation of those shunted aside by both the increasingly slicked-up remoteness of 1970s rock and the times themselves. From the killings at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970 through the Iranian hostage crisis and aborted rescue attempt in 1979, the '70s produced one alienating disaster after another. The oil embargo, Watergate, Nixon's resignation, Vietnam, and Three Mile Island all produced varying degrees of toxicity and illness. The radio offered up the blandest of the status quo. Music's function as a reflection of life had been paved over by self-mythologizing product that eschewed wayward contrarian impulses for stage- managed artificiality.
Punk roared and shambled in with the social commentary missing from mainstream airplay. Whether it was pasted-together sloganeering with a curl to its lip or complex and subversive, in the cultural context of the time, the music had a fresh inventiveness. It was substantive just for communicating something beyond received information. Bands like X, the Minutemen, Pere Ubu, the Clash, the Ex, and the Mekons had a sly double vision that conveyed explosive angst but revealed that the catharsis would still be followed by another work day. Somewhere between being powerless victims and having total agency in our lives rests the place where most of us default on our dreams and call it home.
Those bands were inspiring, spring-loaded with a feral artistry that captured the public imagination of the moment. Unlike the composites that passed as '70s icons, they weren't closed circuits. Bands like the Mekons and the Ex depended on their audience to complete the electrical current. They represented something very different: an egalitarian, ragtag bunch of socialists and anarchists. Their music was and is joyous, unruly, and anything but iconic, drawing on folk forms and speaking in the fractured voices of griots with too much on their minds and plates, and jobs to get up for in the morning besides. Each band has a recent reissue of albums that evidence slantwise what Russian symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok once wrote: "History is the noise of time."
It's a sentiment that the Mekons can surely understand. After all, they are the band that once asked, "Do you want to be part of the crime or part of the punishment?" The Ex delivers it even more elementally. Jello Biafra's label, Alternative Tentacles, has just reissued the band's 1986 EP, 1936: The Spanish Revolution. It details the Spanish Revolution from the perspective of the anti-fascists. It's an anarchist oeuvre disguised as revolutionary snapshots. The Ex combines images and a written narrative that documents the mission of the anti-fascists to resist and defeat tyranny. The band's agit-genius illuminates every corner with a blur of fury. The Ex grew from the '70s Amsterdam squatter movement into an anarcho- punk band, with anger and joy running relay through their songs. "Freedom calls!/Now or never!," bellows G. W. Sok on the frenzied "They Shall Not Pass." The album burns with such passion, you almost forget yourself, and that the anti-fascists were defeated.
The Mekons are magpies who snatch defeat from the jaws of defeat. Originally released in 1987, ROIR Records has reissued the Mekons' New York: On the Road '86-'87, a shambolic record of the band's live shows. It features field recordings of messy, drunken sets with a rotating cast of musicians. The songs originate from the Mekons' excellent trilogy of American roots music exploration: Fear and Whiskey, The Edge of the World, and Honky Tonkin'. Their sumptuous homage/skewering of the country-folk tradition is perfectly captured on this audio vérité diary, which includes snippets of stage banter and road-weary ramblings. A cover of the Band's "The Shape I'm In" and a pisstake response to the Clash's "White Riot," called "Never Been in a Riot," demonstrates why, over 20 years later, the Mekons are still punk's great contrarians.
Both of these albums display the elasticity and multilayered socio-political views that first ignited punk. Over a dozen years later, these two reissues show the incidental grit and throwaway brilliance that illuminated the music then. These are songs of outsiders, people off the grid and below the radar. In an age of info-glut, most statements can't carry progressive values. The words become instantly nostalgic or stylistic. They are either melted down into the corporate super-narrative, mocked, or ignored entirely. We are left with the swindle of fulfillment. This music is a struggle with the limits of human perception and a reminder that there is a work ethic of the heart. And sadly, its social commentary is as true and vital as ever. NATE LIPPENS
Hit After Hit
All amped up like a classroom of kindergartners on a Froot Loops binge, this local quartet rips through 13 punk rock songs in less than half an hour, taking pot shots at Bob Seger ("Silver Bullet"), celebrating sexually transmitted diseases ("New Case"), and waxing rhapsodic about the powers of new footwear in the process ("New Shoes"). Is it original? Of course not. But damn, it's good. Walking the fine line between clever and stupid (or goofy and just plain dumb) is tricky, but the Briefs keep it on the right side of the tracks. And besides, who can resist the inherent pleasure in singing along to the chorus of "Silver Bullet": "Kill Bob Seger right now! Die! Die!" BARBARA MITCHELL
LEFT HAND SMOKE
So Many Faces
No more than a mile separates the Owl 'n' Thistle from the venerable Showbox, but for local bands trying to make a name for themselves, it can feel like a much longer distance. That's why Left Hand Smoke's Friday night release party for its second album, So Many Faces, should energize the band and its long-suffering fans alike. The improvement in venue (the band released its self-titled debut album just over two years ago at the Owl) is indicative of the group's overall musical trajectory; So Many Faces represents a surprising improvement from the band's slightly frantic and inconsistent debut. An appealing layer of dust has settled on Left Hand Smoke's blues-rock sound and on lead singer Ben Mish's vocal chords, resulting in a more assured, rootsy sound, complete with organ, slide guitar, and a slack rock sensibility reminiscent of early Rolling Stones. Even more promising is the songwriting, which is downright inspired at times; Left Hand Smoke has already traveled an important mile, but So Many Faces gives the impression that this band won't stay put for long. NATHAN THORNBURGH
The Burlington Northern
Tom Daily's post-Smoking Popes solo work has included 1999's Happily Deceiving Culture and 2000's Tragedy of Fanbelts. His latest release, the darkly-twinged and introspective The Burlington Northern, starts off with "The Kids Are Not Alright," in which Daily sounds like he's singing from an old metal high-school locker, all alone and brutally honest. On "World of Yawns" and "Allison, It's True," Daily brings in the geeky, intergalactic noises of Moog. But, he doesn't stick with one specific style--geek, spaced-out, or otherwise. In fact, by the end of the album ("Oh My"), you might confuse his effected vocals and heart-on-sleeve rock for Doug Martsch and Co. Whether he's adding sounds and distortion or just singing with Midwest sincerity, Daily has made a fine, minimal record. Which is what you'll be thinking when you're curled up in the passenger seat, sweetly dreaming as he reminisces: "I think it was Georgia or Tennessee /I was driving and you were asleep." LISA GUNTER
A Better Version of Me
Leaving behind the boxy, ice-ironed landscape of Wisconsin for the East Coast has freed three-piece Rainer Maria from the angsty claustrophobia that sometimes hampered 1999's Look Now Look Again. The lush, slanted indie-pop that effloresces within "Artificial Light," the first song of Rainer Maria's third album, A Better Version of Me, shows the band has fully shrugged off the ill-fitting emo tag that its earlier work was stamped with. The band builds on the momentum of 2000's three-song EP, Atlantic, which crackled with the inventiveness the group always seemed on the cusp of. With bassist Caithlin De Marrais taking the vocal helm almost entirely, the band has hit its stride. She has increasingly loosened up her singing style with each release. On songs like "The Seven Sisters" and "Spit and Fire," she demonstrates the strength and range of her voice. De Marrais and guitarist Kyle Fischer tangle and collide, singing of raw romantic conflict and loss of identity. It is a reconnaissance mission of addled humanity. Fischer creates a dynamic sound that shifts and soars. William Kuehn's drumming is a solid spine anchoring De Marrais' melodic bass lines. The visceral impact of A Better Version of Me shows Rainer Maria at its fully-formed best. NATE LIPPENS
Things We Lost in the Fire
Some albums contain that one song you rush to listen to on a sad, gray day: the one so full of lush longing that it seems to drape across your ears with the fabric bent of velvet and wool combined, warming your melancholy to the temperature of fresh blood. Low is all about that song. In fact, the band's new album, Things We Lost in the Fire, is 13 of those songs. From the slow, simple chords of "Sunflower" (which opens with the words "When they found your body/Giant answers on your eyes...") to the timpani and tambourine of "In Metal" (which features the cooing of Hollis, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker's infant), Things We Lost in the Fire reverberates with the terrible beauty of sadness. This approach is nothing new for Low, specialized as the group is in exquisite, droning slow-core. Maybe the style reflects the fact that Sparhawk and Parker are Mormons--what could be more angstful, after all, than Mormonism?--but the sadness rarely seems directed; it is most gorgeous when it flows through the music like static. (The one song on Things We Lost in the Fire that betrays any didactic sentiment is "Whore," and it is, therefore, the one failure.) With simple folk-style vocals layered over complex orchestration, Low is the band to bring you down. TRACI VOGEL