Cream of Beats
Ian Svenonius is so far ahead of what you expect from most indie rock these days that it's easy to miss how frustrated he is. But he is frustrated, and he sounds like he has been for a long time. "For the revolutionary, life is a compromise," he sings on I Suck on That Emotion (Drag City), the debut album from his latest, umpteenth band, the Scene Creamers. "Just look around into anyone's eyes."
Though he hails from gritty Washington, D.C., Svenonius might be the sort of visionary who sees real life as a crushing banality check. The punk group he's still known for, the Nation of Ulysses, ached against the limits of post-hardcore circa the first Bush Administration. But all he could come up with then was recycled Fugazi, with a dash of style and fervency that vaguely approximated soul. The band careened and sputtered like a racecar mid-breakdown-- gloriously chasing after the jazz (or ideal thereof) in its head. But the hair grease, tuneless trumpet, nice suits, and elaborately convoluted sleeve manifestos struck me as the product of kids who had endlessly studied James Brown concert footage and learned only how to dress--ironists who had read piles of political pamphlets and learned only how to write piles of political pamphlets.
The fact that Nation of Ulysses could be taken for a joke was no doubt a source of comfort to the singer: For the faux revolutionary, life is less of a compromise. Yet Svenonius never winks at his audience, whose local constituents have been hotly anticipating the Scene Creamers show on Thursday at the 7th St. Entry. Crowds respond to this geeky shaman's apparent will to become something he's not--namely, a soul singer--and that wish seems to grow more sincere and touchingly desperate as he moves into plusher and more musical settings. The Make Up--the other '90s band Svenonius is known for--offered an answer to his most memorable NOU rhetoric: "Who's got the real anti-parent-culture sound?" But, to them, the answer was Prince ("Maybe I'm just like my mother..."), not the Make Up, which made sense when you thought about it. Anti-nostalgiacs devoted to the past, Svenonius and the few Nation of Ulysses members who stayed on with him needed a flexible role model that no punk could credibly sound like. Soon, their religious-revival-like garage-funk shows (along with their essential singles collection on K Records, I Want Some) showed signs of inspiration amid the bucketloads of perspiration.
Now the Scene Creamers are a shag-carpet-ride version of the Make Up, retaining Michelle Mae's sensuous bass but parting with the remaining Nation of Ulysses dudes. Their new garage funk on I Suck on That Emotion is both funkier and more in the garage: Svenonius's quieted screams, expressive mumbles, and Princely dove cries are now mostly smothered in wah-wah guitar (the drums are pretty much buried). Yet for once, you can detect a completely original sound in the willful shimmy of a guy who knows what he wants and has no idea how to get it. The high-voiced chorus of "Wet Paint" (which goes, um, "wet paint") is answered by low-voiced yeah, yeah, yeahs that both improve upon and parody the egregious yeahs and babys that peppered every Make Up song. Svenonius has created his own anti-parent genre of babys.
"Bag, Inc.," meanwhile, lets guitarist Alex Minoff shed the psych-overload for
a spell of nifty acoustic strumming as the singer confesses to having been the corporate stooge we never knew he was. (Is he still smarting over a certain glossy teen magazine's "Sassiest Boy in America" award?) "I bit off more than I can chew," he blurts, as Mae croons, "My feet don't fit inside of these shoes." Dude, wait until you're on the cover of Rolling Stone before you break out the "Corporate Magazines Still Suck" T-shirt.
Still, I'm suddenly looking forward to that moment, if for no other reason than that things have gotten so bad since I last noticed Svenonius, or thought about him enough to wonder why his parents didn't just go for the obvious first name and call him Thelonious. To quote the lead track on I Suck on That Emotion, the singer who can't quite sing is "looking better all the time" now that the garage-rock revival has arrived and turned out to be nothing more than warmed-over Halo of Flies. The sort of 1960s Weather Underground radicalism that Nation of Ulysses spoofed has devolved into the fretful international efforts of "progressives" to make the revolutionary forces of capitalism more democratic and less bloody. Noble work, maybe, but not fun, and not at all deserving of music this freaked out.
City Pages: Why do you still do this?
Ian Svenonius: I guess the impetus is that the music community in America continues to be the one which is constantly self-examining and self-critical, that it's the one which is still politically engaged and is still not simply the domain of the super-rich like other paradigm mediums (such as film). Of course, there's shortcomings as well, such as a tendency toward anti-intellectualism and formalist slavery, but independent music still represents every year with inspirational artifacts.
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