Spinning in Their Graves
Local music has come a long way from the '80s basement demos collected on Barefoot & Pregnant, a just-reissued punk collection. These days, we're nearly buried in slickly packaged local CDs, many of them now well-produced and ready for the radio, if radio were only ready for them.
But even so, new discs by the funky likes of Vanguard, the melancholy Mollycuddle, and the cheeky Sandwiches all seem slightly static next to the crazed amateurishness of a forgotten band like Man Sized Action, who are "documented" on Barefoot as if they were armed robbers on security cams. I'm not indulging in a spiky-haired version of Wedding Singer nostalgia here: Today's beginning bands have more venues to play and cheaper ways to record than ever before. But even so, we've lost something in the info-overload '90s: We don't sound hungry. Today's would-be stars could use some of that old punk gall, the mindset that you can create something new under the sun, and that to do so is positively necessary. Then, perhaps, we'd close the vintage stores, forgo the swing lessons, and make our own clothes and our own steps.
Barefoot & Pregnant
The notion that hardcore punk was a musically reactionary undercurrent of early-'80s New Wave has by now become rock critic orthodoxy. The line goes something like this: American punk's second wave yielded a rigid set of musical rules (high bpm, no melody) and lyrical norms (political dogma) that a few exceptional bands like, say, Hüsker Dü proceeded to transcend, thus inventing "post-hardcore," and later, "indie rock."
Sure, sure. But even if there's a grain of truth in the complaint that hardcore was responsible for turning a boho free-for-all punk scene like CBGB's into a truck stop for Murphy's Law soundalikes, the history of coastal punk is but a chapter in the Ameri-core travelogue. And the recent reissue of 1982's Twin Cities punk compilation Barefoot & Pregnant shows how wide-ranging the form was before hardcore became "post-punk," and post became "alt-rock."
What's remarkable about this series of outtakes and demos from 11 bands, originally collected on Hüsker Dü's Reflex label, is how little the overall din resembles the constant roar some historians would have you imagine. There's nothing here like the righteous thrash of today's Minneapolis revivalists Code 13: The politics on Barefoot are too scattershot, the music too uncomfortable with itself. This is adolescent rock--and not only in the sense that it's immature and angry--but because it's half-formed and, subsequently, open to possibilities.
You'd think Loud Fast Rules, who later changed their name to Soul Asylum, would be prime specimens of speed-rock orthodoxy. Instead, they lead off the record with a countrified version of Clash-style ska-rock, suggesting musical detours rarely taken in '80s punk. And though Barefoot contains louder and faster versions of the Hüskers, the Replacements, and the less influential Rifle Sport, these early recordings are just as compelling as watersheds like Let It Be.
Rifle Sport are a ragged, organ-fed garage band with anachronistic metal licks while the Replacements, recorded live, sound remarkably tight on a slam-dunk take of Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" that contradicts Paul Westerberg's post-song remark that "we're gonna try and sober up a little bit and we'll be back." Besides the Dü, only Mecht Mensch, a Madison, Wis., band with ties to the Cities (they later morphed into sludge-funkers the Tar Babies), serves up what could be called straight-up thrash. But even on these songs, the guitars are too messy and dense to sound like rote drone.
The Barefoot bands seemed to have latched on to the anger and honesty of punk before fully grasping the conventions. With more confidence than anyone else, Hüsker Dü set the tone with "Signals from Above" (recorded live), with Bob Mould screaming, "Dirt-cheap love is a thing of the past/I feel hate 'cause I move fast." It's a particularly inspired non sequitur set to a bizarro series of chord changes that make his latest solo effort, The Last Dog and Pony Show, sound like 12-bar blues. Hate and speed, far from shackling singers Mould and Grant Hart, gave them a voice--and an audience. And that excitement made lesser bands sound more vital. Sure, Idol Threat's "The Reason Why" was a predictable anti-nuke screed, its blistering guitar line hopelessly ruined by a lame X-Ray Spex-style sax part. But it's delivered with such complete conviction that you might find yourself fist-pumping along with it.
At times the politics of the Barefoot bands seem to lash out indiscriminately. The band In Decision plowed through Lou Reed's "I Want to be Black," the self-hating precursor to Black Flag's "White Minority." The immortal Man Sized Action cried, "Everybody's happy/It's all just a dream/About a time when hate was in," on "Everybody's Happy." (This before launching into the more straightforwardly anti-social--and misogynist--"I Hit Girls.") Here were visceral kicks mixed with constant self-analysis that bordered on self-loathing--"complicated fun," to borrow the Suicide Commandos' phrase. Crashing through the collected works of the class of 1982, you sample the songs like an aural yearbook, a collection of pissed-off signatures that still sting a decade later.
EVER SINCE MADISON Avenue began buying up every last butt-shaking '70s hit from Rhino's In Yo' Face compilation series, the very term "funk" has taken on a retro tint. Not that the denizens of Funky Town are complaining: Local crowds still flock to see unabashedly revisionist acts like the Soul Tight Committee, the Sensational Joint Chiefs, and Greazy Meal (who just released a record that could be this year's model in '70s-meets-'90s wacka-wacka-ugh). The Artist himself probably wouldn't frown on the Cities becoming the incubator for a form that's barely breathing. As you'd expect, he's an avid collector of vintage funk: At a recent Paisley Park performance he strung together two obscure tunes by D.C. funk legend Chuck Brown, introducing go-go to a flock of unwitting Midwestern teenagers.
But the distinct funk of irrelevance haunts most modern groove practitioners, including many local ones. Many in-town groove barons seem to dig no deeper into their stacks than Fatback, eschewing the politics of the Philly sound, avoiding the possibilities of hip-hop crossover, and rarely making a play for D'Angelo's modern R&B constituency. To their credit, St. Paul's Vanguard will go down smooth for the R&B crowd, and the 10-person-strong, racially mixed collective lays on the sweet, high harmonies that should please its core audience of Quest regulars. (Echoing the photo of the Lounge on the sleeve of Tribe of Millions' Puddin Head's Live Can of Whup Ass, Vanguard are pictured in the Quest's Garden Room.)
Thankfully, the band also knows how to smirk, grooving in a distinct, and distinctly outré, tradition of not taking the funk too seriously. "Asscakes and Gravy" is as good a Greazy Meal tribute as anyone could ask for, an homage echoed elsewhere on the album in the line "get your asscakes off the wall." Like Greazy, Vanguard is built around a sound (they were originally formed as a production company), and the band's personality lies in the squeezy-bendy grooves rather than in its stars. At its most ambitious, on "Jonzin'," the band approximates a live rock version of Timbaland's nervous rhythmscapes--nothing retro about that.
It's Not You, It's Me
Guilt Ridden Pop
I'VE BEEN MINDLESSLY humming the first few bars of the Harlows' "Meridians" all summer, and the song's melody will probably trigger as many memories in coming years as the first half of Elliot Smith's X/O or Brandy and Monica's "The Boy Is Mine." And I can't help but wonder why. There's nothing particularly new or sophisticated about this local slice of New Zealand-style scratch-and-sing from the band's 1997 debut Tip to Toe. Such is the puzzle of Mollycuddle's equally addictive would-be hit "King Me," off the group's smartly titled full-length debut, It's Not You, It's Me. Based on a dumb lyric, "I wish that I could be/Your Muhammad Ali," the song somehow sticks in the craw.
Both of these local groups play the kind of harmony-steeped lovey-pop that usually falls on its cherubic little face if it doesn't have the substance to back up the hooks--the Harlows channeling U.K. twee-poppers Heavenly, while Mollycuddle face down the spirits of Lush and the Pixies. But like their minor-chord cousins Sliver, these bands sport distinctive boy-girl voice pairings and have a way with melodic phrasing that allows them to make well-worn styles sound timeless. All three bands seem destined to make dissatisfying albums that are difficult to part with, if only for the five or six college-radio-ready pop gems each is sure to offer.
Which doesn't mean Mollycuddle's missteps aren't grating. There's too much Weezer-style yelling throughout It's Not You, though flared tempers work to good effect on the rave-up "Dwindled." Credit Mollycuddle with building their unassuming pop sound into a mighty, shoe-gazing roar that owes as much to more confident writing (they've played the scene for a few years now) as it does to ubiquitous local producer Bryan Hanna's assistance. Dream-pop like this is as rare these days as a good night's sleep--though after seven listens to this disc, I may go under yet.
Rock On, Scubatron
A FEW YEARS ago, the Sandwiches went looking for an entourage of "sexy humans" by placing classified ads in the personals section, which wasn't such a bad idea, considering that the outfit requires equal doses of lust, indulgence, and commitment from fans and members alike. Since their debut in the mid-'90s, the 'Wiches well-enunciated lyrics and honky rapping have served as a soundtrack for the goofy stage-show, which has included a growing gang of costumed freaks that distributes free sandwiches to the crowd. The band currently features a guitarist in nuns' habit and a trumpeter dressed as Abraham Lincoln, and it might safely be asserted that the nom de guerre of singer Lord Ludicrous (himself decorated in chef hat and Afrika Bambaataa wraparounds) says everything you need to know about this band.
But many scenesters stopped rubbing their foreheads and took notice when the band's punky, spunky 1995 single "Recyclable Man" (with "Put Up Your Dukes" on the B-side) became a runaway Radio K hit, getting airplay for both songs. (It's now out of print.) Since then, audiences have caught up with the Sandwiches' performance-oriented meta-rock vibe, embracing more blatant (and adult) sexual glam-bunnies All the Pretty Horses, Greazy Meal, and the Odd.
Now the Sandwich collective has followed up last year's debut with a slick-looking disc named for their new DJ, Scubatron, who appears all over the album and is clearly as amateurish as everyone else.
Does this mean that Rock On, Scubatron is a bold foray into post-electronica indie-experimentalism Sandwichcraft? Of course not. Rapper Sex Man's "Got to get down/'Cause up is too far to go" lyric on "Get Down" is an apt summary of the conceptualized (musical) underachievement which keeps their pop polite, their funk funny, and their overall effect on listeners both pleasant and forgettable. Only the one horn-ified flash of genuine Blondie-punk--the female-led "Panic Girls"--makes you wonder if there's something to the Sandwiches cult besides yuks.
The Sandwiches play a CD release party Saturday at the Fine Line Music Cafe. The Electric Arab Orchestra opens. Call 338-8100 for more information.
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