Twenty-Minute Men

Tora! Tora! Torrance!: Sexing you up before you can say "rock 'n' roll"

Anyone who has ever tried to make whoopee to Little Richard will agree that the indivisibility of sex and rock 'n' roll has been overstated. I say this in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary, including the form's nomenclatorial naughtiness, and the great sexual awakening engendered in me by Buckner and Garcia's "Pac Man Fever." Obviously sex is central to rock 'n' roll--as it is to other swell things such as human interaction and the consumption of apples. But the threadbare claim that fucking was, is, and forever will be the music's guiding animus is not just second-rate Freud, but rooted in the odious stereotype of the hypersexual African-American brute. Besides, the overemphasis on sex unaccountably downplays rock's nautical fixation ("Sea Cruise," "Proud Mary," "Come Sail Away," "Rock the Boat"), a recurring theme us boat lovers on the margins of the rock press have long labored to call attention to.

That said, Minneapolis punk-rock quintet Tora! Tora! Torrance! (not since Tony! Toni! Toné! has a band's moniker been so bold in its exclamatory assonance) has me thinking about sex and rock 'n' roll, particularly about stamina. During a show at St. Paul's Big V's, singer Nick Koenigs muses (jokes?) that all great art is about God and death, which seems to put some distance between the band and great art. Either that or God is dying to get laid. Maybe it's just the Bartles & James talking, but the performance seems to score one for the rock is amplified sex goats. There's more come-hither than run-thither about Koenigs's manic cawing and contorting, and the show ends with Koenigs and guitarist Jon Tester in a (fully clothed and somewhat tedious, to be honest) 69. The band follows suit, playing with urgency suggestive of a teenage tryst begun dangerously close to Dad's expected return from a Promise Keepers powwow.

Not those cliché rock 'n' roll types you'd like them to be: Tora! Tora! Torrance!
Courtesy of Tora! Tora! Torrance!
Not those cliché rock 'n' roll types you'd like them to be: Tora! Tora! Torrance!

Watching the straw-haired, fresh-faced (all of the band members are between the ages of 20 and 24) singer, I'm even convinced that the greatest product of the garage-rock revival--which the group has a tangential kinship with, especially if one stores disco-noise groups such as the Liars in the garage--is the re-femininization of male rock dancing, the welcome return of stage steps derived from Mick Jagger's peacockish androgyny. There's also some of Iggy Pop's simian ballet in Koenigs's moves, but the Jagger repertoire dominates: the jerks, the thrusts, the spasms, the modified hands-on-hips chicken strut.

The set is over in about 25 minutes, which, given the show's general character, is coitus interruptus. In a determined effort never to overstay their welcome, TTT! limit their sets to under half an hour. I'm of two minds about this doctrine. On one hand, I admire its modesty and adherence to punk's aesthetic of brevity. On the other hand, it feels like a cheat. If rock 'n' roll is so powerful that it inspires spasms of orgasmic glee, then isn't it worth playing at least until bar close?

Being parsimonious performers and prolific writers, TTT! can only gloss their songbook in any given show. Their latest store of material, A Cynic's Nightmare, is just out on the Anaheim, California-based label the Militia Group. Due to my stubborn traditionalist bent, I'm partial to the album's opener, "Yr All On Our Dance Card." According to the band, the song came about as a kind of just-for-larks exercise in pop formalism. The concessions to melody are modest, but there is verse-chorus-repeat, a certified (if instrumental) bridge, a guitar solo, and some piquant use of floor-tom-driven hubble-bubble (the type heard, for example, on Pretenders' "Precious"). And in a charming if unintended disavowal of hipster purism, the bridge is an accelerated variation on the opening riff from Mountain's "Mississippi Queen," cowbell and all.

On top is the puerile whine of Koenigs, whose lyrics for the tune are like party-rock shorthand. He even opens by yelling "yeah, yeah, yeah!" This isn't precisely ironic; he doesn't mean "no, no, no." But he is having fun with the renewed currency of "She Loves Me"-like language, and he proceeds to cram in "drug," "action," "fucked," "girls," "boys," even a quote from AC/DC (again with the sexual derring-do!).

Those AC/DC and Mountain quotes are important. Koenigs's cheese-grater monotone bespeaks the group's alliance with early punk and its progeny, but that's only part of the story. TTT! also evince carnal knowledge of hard rock, metal-conversant hardcore, art-noise, and the intersections of all of the above (Tester is a big fan of scream therapists the Blood Brothers and progish At the Drive-In offshoots the Mars Volta). "Another Drink To Yr Health," for example, begins with the recently resurgent Gang of Four chop, but by the chorus is tipping its hat to Guns N' Roses crunch.

Koenigs is quick to point out that lyrical references to "drug action" and musical nods to Guns N' Roses do not bespeak a dissolute lifestyle. "We're not really these cliché rock 'n' roll types you'd like us to be," he writes me in an e-mail postscript, "We're all pretty awkward." This, truth be known, I had surmised much earlier, the moment I tried to schedule an interview with the lead singer. The weekend was no good, Koenigs told me, because he was going on a camping trip with his mom and little brother. Is there a rock 'n' roll song that goes with that? Could we fudge on "Rocky Mountain High?" Probably not, but I'm quite sure people who go on family camping trips are ultimately more attractive than cliché rock 'n' roll types, anyway. Even if they do tucker out at 25 minutes.

 
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