Sunday, January 25, 2015

"He was a man who was staunchly confused about most things, but in his role as head of the household, he felt compelled to have strong opinions."

Empathy For The Evil

When I read that Mecca Normal would be recording their thirteenth album with former Shimmy Disc founder Mark Kramer as producer, I admit I was slightly skeptical. How do the poster children of sparse, cutting, post-punk minimalism find common ground with the king of the reverb-laden psychedelic wall of sound?

I've never been happier to have my expectations dashed to the rocks. What has Kramer brought to Mecca Normal? Clarity and subtlety. Jean Smith's nasal-yet-powerful vocals (sometimes double-tracked for emphasis) and David Lester's assertive, scene-setting rhythm guitar are right there in front of you. Kramer's bass and keyboards, Smith's sax and keyboard additions, and Lester's occasional melodic guitar overdubs add color without getting in the way. The sound is sensual, warm, and balanced. Mecca Normal have already put out an imposing amount of great music over the years, but Empathy For The Evil may be the best-sounding album they've ever made.

The new twist this album offers is that the lyrics to all but two tracks are taken directly from two of Jean Smith's novels, The Black Dot Museum of Political Art and Obliterating History. This does not mean Empathy For The Evil is a "spoken-word" album. The songs are vivid fragments of stories with intriguing bits of information left out, spun into elegant phrases sung over Lester's catchy, poignant chord progressions. The more you listen, the more these elusive character sketches stick in your consciousness.

The album opens with a typically jagged Mecca Normal grind called "Art Was The Great Leveler". Over David Lester's choppy punk chords (one of that rare breed of guitarists who is instantly identifiable from the first strum), Jean Smith dissects the social rituals of a community of artists who fancy themselves able to transcend class differences. The words are deadpan and descriptive, but the voice is full of skeptical amusement. When it gets to the part where she reveals the great effort the characters make to hide uncomfortable details about themselves, it simply confirms everything her tone of voice already implied. (Her wry delivery of "art...and hiking" alone is a crackup.)

In contrast, "Wasn't Said" takes a resigned character's internal monologue and elongates the words over slow folky heart-tugging guitar and organ. The emotional effect of the repeated phrases "none of this will matter" and "no communication, no communication" is devastating. Another slower number, "Normal", is a portrait of a petulant boy passing judgement on his mother for her nonconformity. (He sounds utterly insufferable, but Smith is a gifted and confident enough writer to let him speak for himself without editorializing.) "One Man's Anger" dissects another character who hides his fear (and his fear of his fear) behind a more socially acceptable veneer of anger while hypnotic circular chords revolve around him as if to emphasize his own psychic trap. "Naked And Ticklish" is a comical series of character studies of men and dogs that hearkens back to the outrageous tales of disastrous online dating experiences on Mecca Normal's previous album, The Observer.

The album ends with a two-part portrait of a young girl growing up on a remote farm in the Depression with a gruff, abusive father and several brothers, thrust into the role of the hard working "farm wife" for the males of the household after her mother's death. Odele's inner life and her struggle to come of age in an ugly emotional environment is rivetingly told. In the end, even the good side of country living is spoiled for her as she runs away from home at 16 and resolves to "never again eat anything green." To find out what happens to her after that, we'll all have to read The Black Dot Museum of Political Art when it comes out.

Turning long, thick passages of prose into singable, memorable songs, Mecca Normal have revolutionized their music again. If you think you've already heard everything this band is capable of, you need to hear Empathy For The Evil and find out just how wrong you are. After a long-delayed release, you will finally get a chance. Do not miss this one.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

I've Always Been On Fire

Dirt EP

Rip Reed and I go way back. The second gig X-tal ever played, we opened for Trial, a Joy Division-influenced anarcho-punk band he briefly played guitar with. Back in the 80s, Rip cut his teeth on the more challenging end of the punk scene, playing with Trial and Ⓐ State Of Mind as well as recording EPs by Atrocity and Liberté. Even as a youngster, he was focused and brilliant, and very much a fixture on the scene back then. I still crack up remembering the time we were at a New Years Eve show at the Victoria Theatre featuring the Dicks (Gary Floyd made himself up as a dead ringer for Divine in Pink Flamingos that night) and hanging out with a freshly-shaved Rip when a drunk skinhead stumbled up to us, bellowing, "YOU'RE not a skinhead! I'M a SKINHEAD! YOU'RE just a BALD MAN!" It took some effort for us to maintain our cool and not burst into giggles until the guy moved on to some other distraction. Ah yes, punk rock was still fresh and a bit dangerous back then.

After decades of being out of touch, it's nice to discover that Rip is at the helm of a new vehicle called Spider Heart. As I would expect, the guitar and production are absolutely stellar. Rip now favors big room-filling chords and basic, satisfying riffs with a slight Ron Asheton tone, especially when he hits the wah-wah pedal. Lead singer May Black is no slouch on guitar herself, and their combined tones go down like a shot of whiskey. With Juli Sherry on bass and Chris Maneri, their current drummer, filling out the rhythm section, Spider Heart pounds out their songs with pure confidence and authority. At the center of it all is May Black's voice, a feral, intoxicating thing that moans, shouts and sneers at the world. Imagine a throatier version of Kat Bjelland of Babes In Toyland and you might be halfway there.

On their diverse debut album, Under The Gun, the standout tracks included the brooding "Book Of Poems" and the cascading 3/4 wall of sound "Spark." The album was a long time in the making; on the band's Soundcloud page, you can hear the songs develop over the years. In contrast, the new 5-song EP, Dirt, sounds more like a spontaneous, unified outburst. The two-guitar tone has been honed into something even bigger and more undeniable. The EP seems to unfold in a very deliberate fashion: big drone stomp; midtempo minor-key bluesy rocker; crazed punk screech; bigger slower drone dirge; despondent/defiant crawl. The five songs fit together like a cathartic ritual. It all feels right.

The lyrics do I put this?...very dramatic teen-angst rock stuff. Everything is devils, dirt, guns, bullets, crime, fire, dead this, dead the hands of a less powerful band and singer it would start to sound kinda corny after a while. But the way Spider Heart tear into these songs, you just want to jump around and wave your fists joyfully. Also, it has to be said, I've never heard a more convincing delivery of "fire" as a metaphor for the libido than the song by the same name. "Fire" is a thrilling undertow of noisy longing. Oddly enough, the manic middle track, "Love/War", manages to take one of the worst rock clichés ever (gun=dick, bullets=you know the rest) and twist it by 1) the words being written and delivered by a female singer, and 2) upping the violence ante with a chorus of "My love's a bullet, I'll shoot to kill!" followed by an insanely screamed "KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!" Suddenly it feels like we're in the head of the perpetrator of the next big mass shooting, and we've moved beyond mere AC/DC or Motley Crue style cock-rock japery into a scary evocation of the reality of gun-crazy America. Meanwhile, the music and the vocals are madly exhilarating. It wouldn't be as disturbing and disorienting if they weren't.

Maybe they weren't intending this to be anything more than a cool, bad-ass song and broader social commentary was the last thing on their minds. It doesn't matter, really. This is the kind of impact punk rock used to have: a dive into the abyss in search of unsentimental truth, no matter how nasty or hideous the result may be. If you see culture as pure pedagogy, you'll hate it. If you see it as a reflection of the Zeitgeist, you'll nod your head sadly while banging it at the same time. Turns out punk rock can still be fresh and dangerous sometimes. Spider Heart are already on to something. I look forward to where they go from here.

Coming up: Reviews of 2014

I've been laid up with a nasty flu since the new year began and am finally starting to feel just a little bit better, so it's time to make good on some promises from the year before. I have been asked very nicely by a few people to review their new releases on the blog, and though I said yes, procrastination is a very powerful force. But here I am, still calling in sick from work, and busy doing nothing. Time to get cracking. See you soon.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Ear Candle Radio's Top 20 for December 2014

1. Zap Mama - Africa Sunset - 7
2. Steve Mackay - Zombie Chevys - Sometimes Like This I Talk
3. Snapper - Cause Of You - Snapper 12" EP
4. Mammals - Robocop - Demos
5. Bob Mould - Fugue State - Silver Age
6. Thee Oh Sees - No Spell - Floating Coffin
7. Marianne Faithfull & Chris Spedding - Ballad Of The Soldier's Wife - Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill
8. Lonelady - Immaterial - Nerve Up
9. Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard - Mini-Theme: Moocher From The Future - Em Are I
10. Fifth Column - Don't - Free to Fight
11. Dr. Spaceman - Tap Into The New - Zwanzig Kilometer Stau
12. Linda Smith - A Crumb of Your Affection - Love Songs For Laughs
13. Brian Eno - Horse - Small Craft On A Milk Sea
14. Alec Bathgate - No Taxi To Hoboken - Gold Lame
15. Woody Guthrie - Jackhammer Blues - Columbia River Collection
16. The Television Personalities - She Can Stop Traffic - My Dark Place
17. Swell - Forget About Jesus - 41
18. The Saints - River Deep Mountain High - (I'm) Stranded [Bonus Tracks]
19. Ruby Howl - Armadillo - Heaven Hides There Too
20. Love - The Castle - Da Capo