How To Start a Riot With Just Three Chords
"If we can convey an idea with one or two notes," Kraftwerk's Ralf Hutter told his band's biographer in 1978, "it is better to do this than to play a hundred notes." Such a blunt assessment of Kraftwerk's disarmingly straightforward pop music illuminates a connective node that flowed through all kinds of artistic disciplines in the mid- '70s--a reaction to the cultural excess of the early '70s that occurred when artists decided that simplicity actually sounds good. The same impulse lies at the root of everything from the Ramones' four-chord throttle to Steve Reich's skeletal masterpiece Drumming/Six Pianos to Giorgio Moroder's pristinely compact production of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." Less is more, each of these artists argues in a strikingly different way, and any more than that is moronic.
"Minimalist" might not be the first word that comes to mind when describing San Francisco's Coachwhips, the scuzzed-out garage group fronted by the relentlessly productive Jon Dwyer (of Pink and Brown, Landed, and about seven or eight other groups). But look through Hutter's lens, and you'll find the term goes a long way toward explaining why their newest album Bangers Vs. Fuckers (Narnack)--an 18 minute pileup of needle-in-the-red screech and crude punk-rock primitivism--doesn't recall the other moron-rock bands in the Coachwhips scene (Neon Hunk, Sightings, 25 Suaves) so much as minimalist composer Phill Niblock's recent record, Touch Food. Granted, the two initially seem like opposites: Coachwhips' newest sludegefest of drunken rock puts an added emphasis on the drunken roll, while Niblock's double CD opus is a two-hour-plus meditation where horn, sousaphone, and guitar are massaged into dense, seemingly unchanging, one- or two-note clouds of sound. But step back and squint with me a second, and given the right alignment of stars, you'll divine the same method driving each respective madness.
Niblock works toward sonic purism: a distillation of notes into texture, an absolute reduction of music to the minute modification of one tone. And Coachwhips have the same approach. I know, it sounds hard to believe: Their metronomic 4/4 beat and ultra-raunch guitar/organ/bass screech finds more easily recognizable touchstones in Jon Spencer's sexxed-up shtick, the White Stripes' monomaniac blues thump, or Royal Trux's warped remake of the Rolling Stones. But strip away the manic garage-rock sheen and you'll find Coachwhips are arch structuralists. Like a Wire album, their music is more an exercise in rock constructivism than an exercise in rocking. Each power chord is precisely placed, its repetitions carefully inscribed within the Great Rock Verse-Chorus-Verse Formula. And though Dwyer's manic megaphone vocalizations might say otherwise, each Coachwhips song is an epic of considerable restraint: Only two tracks break the two minute barrier, each one poised to play havoc with garage's traditional pleasure principle.
Don't take it personally: Coachwhips aren't trying to piss you off--though they're not really trying to please you either. Rather, consider Bangers Vs. Fuckers, with its parodic pseudo-offensive title and retardo-chic artwork, an extended dissection of the absolute essentials of the Rock Experience. Their music will get you to the point of frenzy, the exact moment where you prime yourself to head-bang along with them--and then the song is over, with barely a guitar solo or extended rock outro to save you.
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