Screeching the Gospel

Washington, D.C.'s Make-Up witness for the rapture of punk rock

Ian Svenonius could be an actor playing Ian Svenonius. He's a fairly small man with a really large head and lots of Dr. Zaius hair. He wears tight, modish suits, and has the sort of wiry body that you can only get from a few years of good, hard veganism. After his gospel yeh-yeh band the Make-Up calls it a day, one can imagine Svenonius excelling at any number of other movie-of-the-week roles: fundamentalist preacher ranting on a street corner; revolutionary ideological theoretician for the Shining Path; or shoeshiner for Prince in some Under the Cherry Moon sequel. Of course, in his current incarnation, Svenonius kind of does all three.

Svenonius tries to run the Make-Up's gospel-ministry shows like hipster tent revivals. He leaps across the stage, he walks out onto the crowd's locked hands, he dances as if he has caught the Spirit, he struts like Morris Day, and he all but begs the hipsters to come down and get saved by the punk rapture. The band behind him, guitarist-organist James Canty, bassist Michelle Mae, and drummer Steve Gamboa play with ferociously groovy power (decked out in matching jackets-by-Mao) while Ian screams ineffably cool fluff like "CAN YOU FEEL THAT THE AIR IS ALIVE?/I WANNA FEEL IT, BABY/I WANNA FEEL THE MASS MIND!/WHAAAAAA!"

Punks, hipsters, holy rollers: The Make-Up
Punks, hipsters, holy rollers: The Make-Up

The Make-Up's basic sound and stage show certainly put over a gospel feel with all the call-and-response theatrics ("Can I get a 'yeah'?") and organ vamps. But no matter what they call it, the Make-Up's image is a carefully groomed one. They traffic in Holy Ghost rapture, bygone French pop, and garage-spawned punk squall--which is then packaged in vaguely revolutionary liner notes and consistently fabulous clothing. It may be sincere, but Thomas A. Dorsey it ain't. Part of what is inherent in gospel's power is the assumed faith of the performer and the audience: We are worshiping God here, after all. Soul music proved that all you needed was (earthly) love when it substituted "baby" for "Jesus" and managed to hang onto the power. By contrast, the Make-Up use gospel as one element in a combination platter of references--and can pull it off only part of the time.

The clothing and the sloganeering are almost a tradition for these guys. From 1988 to 1992, Canty, Gamboa, and Svenonius joined guitarists Tim Green and Steve Kroner to form the mighty Nation of Ulysses. Armed with suits out of a 1950s bop session, turgid manifestoes about how their nation must prevail, and beautiful neoconstructivist album covers, NOU produced two solid albums that featured a flailing roar punks rip off to this day. The jazzbo suits have given way to a more satiny, Sixties soul-revue look in the Make-Up, but the irritating ranting remains. Check out this (tongue-in-cheek?) liner note from the Make-Up's first album, the stiff and contrived Destination Love Live: "Vibrations of sincerity emanate from this record. Truly it is an evasion from reality, a meeting with the eternal beauties." Well, not really, no matter how much the kids in the crowd are into it.

The album's more spontaneous-sounding followups, Sound Verite and After Dark aren't much better, and seem no less self-absorbed. "Do not review...if the review would condescend to Make-Up's pretension of ideology," one liner note reads. Uh-oh. Such silly narcissism detracts from the sense of tongue-speaking frenzy the band seems to desire. And it's the frenzy that is the most electric part of this act. When the band slows down the tempo, their sets inevitably drag. Gospel's structure is supposed to give you a breather between ecstatic encounters with the Lord. It's not, however, supposed to turn the passion off altogether, which is exactly what happens when Svenonius tones down the fervor in favor of witnessing on topics like his communal love for you all (baby), Jackson Pollock as CIA stooge, and, well, whatever else pops into his head.

This makes the Make-Up one hell of a frustrating band, with their live potential constantly undercut by hit-or-miss material. On record, the Make-Up seem incapable of distinguishing between a good tune and a terrible one. Check out their spotty but often deeply rewarding singles collection I Want Some, released this March on K Records. The band's debut seven-inches were compelling, a jumpy mess of one-chord organ drone, rough drumming, weird guitar, and muffled screaming. (This period hearkened back in part to a short-lived but potent combo the three guys were in with bassist Kim Thompson called Cupid Car Club, which stripped down NOU's clamor to its tinny, menacing essentials.) On these tracks the Make-Up sound like they weren't as much recorded as unearthed; it's a screechy rec-room-R&B thunder waiting to be born. When you hear Svenonius moan "We can make all your dreams come true" on the amazing "Blue Is Beautiful," you believe every word.

But this manic oddness gives way to well-meaning but bafflingly inept songs such as "Free Arthur Lee" (possessing perhaps some of the worst hand-clapping and atonal singing ever on an ostensible soul record) and lightweight, poorly constructed sing-alongs like "Pow! to the People" and "Every Baby Cries the Same." And, just for the record, a lousy version of "Wade in the Water" does not a gospel band make. The Make-Up have spoken in interviews of their admiration for the old-school R&B schedule that saw a band release multiple albums in a year. Though that's a noble goal, even James Brown produced his share of clunkers--and he was (is?) a genius.

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